Every year, the government releases updated numbers on union membership in America. And every year, the number falls. Where is the rage, rage against the dying of the unions?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that American union membership declined to 10.7% of the total work force in 2016, down from 11.1% the year before. That means that we have 240,000 fewer union members today than in 2015. There are 14.6 million union members left in this country, almost equally divided between the public and private sector. But more than a third of public sector workers are unionized, while in the private sector the union rate is a paltry 6.4%. Likewise, there is a geographic divide in union membership that broadly mirrors which states have anti-union “right to work” laws: “All states in the West South Central division had union membership rates below the national average, and all states in both the Middle Atlantic and the Pacific divisions had rates above it.”
The immediate future political landscape for unions is not promising. In the next few years, there will likely be a Supreme Court decision that will have the effect of slashing public union membership significantly, and the Trump administration will almost certainly roll back many of the union-friendly regulations of the Obama era, which will make organizing and maintaining union power more difficult.
In 1983, the union membership rate was more than 20%; soon, if trends continue, it will be below 10%. In the same time period, income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed, with the richest segment of America making huge gains while wages virtually flatlined for the majority of workers. These two facts are not unrelated. Last year, union members in this country earned wages more than 20% higher than non-union workers.
So why the fuck don’t more people join unions? If you ask unions themselves, they will point to unparalleled hostility from the government, beginning in the Reagan era, accompanied by unfriendly state laws and an unrelenting campaign of anti-labor propaganda from right wing media outlets that succeeded in going mainstream. And they are right about those things. Still, if that is the landscape that unions must operate in, then they must operate in that landscape. Union membership today—just as it was one generation and two generations and three generations ago—is a good idea for workers. It has value. It is a smart thing for workers to do. The job of unions should be made easier by the fact that they are essentially convincing people to do a little organizing in exchange for a pay increase. It’s a good offer. They should be able to sell that, at least better than they have been doing.
If unions in America do not figure out how to turn around their ongoing membership decline, they will die out as a meaningful social and political force. That’s all there is to it. No time to whine about it. The AFL-CIO and the other major unaffiliated unions in this country have a responsibility to keep organized labor alive. So do it. Every year that union membership goes down represents a failure by the existing union leadership to do what needs to be done. If they cannot solve this problem, they should turn their leadership positions over to people who can.