Labor Unions Face Ongoing Decline, Despite Obama-Era Efforts

‘The 2018 BLS data on the rate of union membership reflect nothing more than the status quo…’

REPORT: Taxpayer Funded Union Work Should Be Ended

Photo by Rep. Keith Ellison (CC)

(Lionel Parrott, Liberty Headlines) The year 2018 was a stagnant one for union membership.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of union-represented workers in the private sector dropped from 6.5 percent in 2017 to 6.4 percent in 2018.

Industry Week noted that there has been a steep drop in union membership since it began collecting data 1983. At the time, one in five workers were in private-sector unions, almost 18 million people. Despite the increase in population over nearly four decades, there are only 15 million private-sector union workers now.

Private-sector unions may be in even more dire shape than the numbers suggest, since it comes after eight years of union-friendly adjustments to labor laws, pushed by the Obama administration. Despite the administration’s attempts to organize workers, the numbers show unions just treading water.


For public-sector unions, the numbers are a bit brighter, for now. In 2018, 33.9 percent of government workers belonged to unions.

Of course, while unions have more influence in the public sector, businesses continue to employ more people than governments.

Thus, despite the much lower unionization rate of private-sector employees, the private sector has 7.6 million union workers while the public sector has slightly less, 7.2 million.

It may be difficult to project how much impact there will be in next year’s figures from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Janus decision, which said public-sector unions cannot compel non-members to join or otherwise impose fees on them.

Pro-union progressives have explored several different tactics to undermine the court ruling, among them imposing a narrow un-enrollment window and, bizarrely, legislation that would have government agencies pay money directly to the unions designated to fight them.

Unions continue to have the most influence on local government employees, 40.3 percent of whom belong to one. These include occupations such as police officers, firefighters, and teachers.

Other key statistics:

  • Men have a slightly higher union membership rate (11.1 percent) than women (9.9 percent).
  • Blacks are more likely to belong to a union than whites, Asians, or Hispanics.
  • The states of Hawaii and New York boast the highest union membership rates, while the Carolinas have the lowest. Both North and South Carolina have union membership rates of only 2.7 percent.

Industry Week said that California has the largest union membership in terms of raw numbers, but that a state Supreme Court decision effectively eliminating independent contractors in California will have a “measurable impact” on that total.

In addition, another recent U.S. Supreme Court decision affecting truck drivers will likely lead to class- action lawsuits claiming these employees have been misclassified, which could influence the numbers nationwide.

Occupations with the highest unionization rates are in protective service occupations—the aforementioned police, firefighters and teachers. Unionization rates are lowest in the farming, fishing and forestry occupations; sales and related occupations; computer and math occupations; and in food preparation- and serving-related occupations.

Those who support unions can point to one statistic that appears to be on their side: Union members have higher median weekly earnings than non-members ($860 for nonunion workers and $1,051 for union workers). But the BLS says that these numbers don’t tell the whole story and might not control for a number of different factors, such as cost of living.

One factoid that is a key driver of union decline: Union membership rates are highest among older workers.

The takeaway, according to attorneys from the Jackson Lewis law firm: “The 2018 BLS data on the rate of union membership reflect nothing more than the status quo—a tiny fraction of American workers in the private sector, and a minority overall, have chosen to become members of a union.”

If the trend continues, even fewer will make that choice in the future.