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The Decline of Unions & Union Participation in the US

Instructor: Jennifer Schneider

Jennifer teaches critical thinking, legal writing and research, business law and justice studies courses. She has a law degree.

In this lesson we study the decline of unions as well as union participation in the United States. We learn about the primary causes for such declines and we also complete a short quiz testing our understanding.

Union prevalence

Jill has vivid memories of dinners in her family home. The nightly ritual was one of many she grew to appreciate growing up in the 1950s as the daughter of working class, blue-collar parents. She and her brothers would join their mother and father at the kitchen table to talk about their day.

Jill listened carefully. She grew used to hearing about unions, bargains, strikes and contracts. Jill grew to understand that for her father, like so many workers at the time, workplace rules and expectations were formed largely as a result of union influence.

Today, dinner conversations are dominated by different terms that reflect current workplace trends. Topics such as federal and state legislation concerning workplace safety and minimum wage, trends in human resources, and individual salary negotiations are much more typical.

Why? In recent decades both unions and union participation have declined, in large numbers, in the United States.

Unions and union density

Unions are organized groups of affiliated workers who, as a group, use their collective strength to improve their power in their organization. Unions seek to positively impact the resolution of issues most important to their members. These issues are far-reaching and include hours, wages, safety and many other job-related characteristics. Union density describes the percentage of workers (like Jill's father) who are members of a union.

In the United States, union membership reached all times highs during the 1950s. Data suggests that unionization enrolled approximated 35% percent, or about 1 in every 3 of all workers, during the mid-1950s.

Factors contributing to the growth included:

  1. Growth in unionized industries during the Great Depression and after World War II
  2. Group support to fight for safer workplace conditions and insurance
  3. Group strength to obtain higher wages and better employee benefits

Fighting for better work conditions
Fighting for fair work conditions

However, during the decades since the 1950s, union presence changed. U.S. Department of Labor data from 2015 suggests a union membership rate of approximately 11%. Many factors have contributed to the decline of unions and union participation in the U.S. Some of the most significant include:

Industry changes

The decline of employees employed in traditionally unionized industries has contributed greatly to the decline in unionization. Large lay-offs in sectors with high union membership (construction and manufacturing, for example) have contributed to overall declines. Similar reductions in other traditionally heavily unionized industries, such as teaching and the local government, have also contributed to the decline in union membership. Fewer workers are taking jobs such as the factory position once held by Jill's father.

Demographic changes

Significant increases in education and worker skill levels have empowered workers to negotiate on their own behalf. Some researchers argue that the increase of women as well as teenagers in the workplace has also contributed to the decrease in union participation. Also, since the positions held by many of these workers are secondary or temporary positions, these workers are less influenced by the long-term employment objectives that unions typically pursue. When Jill's mom entered the workplace seeking supplemental income once Jill graduated from high school, she was much less influenced by union promises for long-term employment.

Globalization

The increasingly global nature of the workplace has also contributed to declines in unionization. As U.S. manufacturers, industries and service organizations have increasingly moved overseas and employed workers from nations demanding lower wages and fewer benefits, union presence in the U.S. has correspondingly declined. Even as workers from comparably lower-wage nations have moved into the U.S. economy, those immigrant workers generally have not been susceptible to unionization efforts.

Restrictive laws

Rules governing union organization have become more stringent over the past several decades. Regulatory oversight of unions has increased significantly and, as a result, has made it more challenging to form, and sustain, a union.

The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 is an important U.S. Federal law that established significant restrictions on the activities and powers of labor unions.

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