It looks like we’re seeing a deviation from a long-standing pattern in U.S. labor union enrollment: private sector union membership is up slightly in 2013, offsetting a decline in public sector union membership. The WSJ:
“For years, the decline in private-sector membership has been covered over by the increase in the public-sector unionism,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “Now the labor movement cannot count on public employees to be the engine of union growth anymore” as cities and states continue to face budget constraints, he said.If unions aren’t willing to make concessions on benefits such as pensions that could contribute to cities’ financial problems, union membership will continue to drop, he said.In the private sector, where overall employment grew by more than two million workers in 2013, the report said unions gained about 280,000 members, a 4% increase, as industries such as construction and manufacturing continued a slow recovery from the recession.
The uptick in private sector workers reflects the gradual economic recovery rather than the unions’ success in organizing new companies and industries. Unionized workplaces have been hiring new workers faster than new workplaces have become unionized. Still, any sign of an uptick in private economy union strength is an important data point. Private sector unions have been hammered over the last fifty years and today only 6.7 percent of private sector workers belong to labor unions.Meanwhile, the public sector unions lost members—partly because of layoffs stemming from both the sequester and municipalities cutting back in tough times, but partly also because of Governor Scott Walker’s reforms in Wisconsin. With Wisconsin public unions much weaker now than before, many public sector workers, including teachers, are opting out.Overall, however, this is just reshuffling the deck chairs of the Titanic, as the long-term trend remains unmistakeable (see chart). America’s labor unions haven’t solved their biggest problem of all: they have still not figured out how to make themselves relevant to workers in the private economy. Until they can do this, their long, slow decline will continue.