February 14, 2001    Volume 8, No. 3

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Percentage Of Union Members Declines To Lowest Level In 52 Years

Union membership declined by 219,000 last year to 16,258,000 workers. The percentage of American workers who are currently union members is at its lowest level since the end of World War II. Only 13.5 percent of all Americans are union members, down from 13.9 percent in 1999, and from a high of almost 36 percent in the early 1950s. The percentage of Americans who are union card holders has been dropping steadily for 50 years.

Union members in the manufacturing sector dropped by 192,000 last year, to 2,832,000, representing 14.8 percent of the 19,232,000 people working in the manufacturing sector. The government sector has the highest percentage of workers belonging to unions at 37.5 percent, according to the Labor Research Association (LRA).

"For a labor movement committed to rebuilding its strength, these numbers were not cause for celebration," says LRA. "Instead, they highlight the need for unions to develop an even more aggressive approach to organizing new members."

About 180,000 people joined unions last year, but with the loss of more than 250,000 manufacturing workers over the past seven months alone and thousands of older workers retiring "current union organizing activity is not enough to cover the losses," says the Labor Research Association.

In order for unions to turn the situation around, they need to recruit one million new members every year. This isn't going to be easy, unless unions at every level make organizing their number-one priority, says LRA executive director Greg Tarpinian.

Unions must develop a solid strategy for creating effective organizing programs, but many unions may not be capable of growth given their current structures. "This is one of the toughest things for any union to address since it means a lot of heavy internal and political lifting," says Tarpinian. "Unions that do not have the capacities to grow must be ready to develop them or be ready to merge with unions that do. Unions that have taken the challenge are the ones that are growing today."

Union membership dropped in 29 states last year, stayed the same in two, and increased in 20 states. In California, job growth (548,000 jobs) far outpaced net union membership growth (9,000 members). By contrast, in New Jersey, total employment increased by 59,000 jobs while total union membership increased by 21,000. New York has the highest percentage of its workers unionized - 26.5 percent, followed by Hawaii at 24.8 percent, Alaska at 21.9 percent, and both Michigan and New Jersey at 20.8 percent.

"Despite the loss of blue-collar industries and union jobs, these states remain vital to the labor movement's future," says the LRA. "They are not just the sites of labor's golden age, they also offer the best hope for labor's future. If the labor movement is going to grow and expand into new industries it will have to focus on cities and states that have high union density rates, state and local governments that are more sympathetic to workers' rights and deeper traditions of unionization."

Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector continues to shed jobs. During January, there was a net reduction of 65,000 manufacturing workers in the United States. But job growth in the service and government sectors has more than made up for the loss. In January, 268,000 new jobs were created, 183,000 of which were in the service sector of the economy, reports the Labor Department. Manufacturing jobs have held steady at between 18 million and 19 million throughout the 1990s. Yet during that time, production of manufactured goods in the United States increased by 35 percent, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. To view the union statistics by state and historical figures, go to www.laborresearch.org.

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