mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Deck Chairs on the Titanic
Private Sector Unions Gain on Public Sector Unions

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.

Features Icon
show comments
  • TommyTwo

    Aha! The penny has dropped! No wonder you are so desperately pushing telework. You are merely the stalking-horse lackey of American plutocracy. Telework serves to atomize the proletariat, and by preventing it from attaining the critical mass necessary to form collectives, your capitalist masters hope to prevent the formation of unions and thus perpetuate their evil system. Well the jig is up, Mead! I’m on to you and your nefarious scheme.

    [Yes, I do indeed find myself ineffably amusing.]

    • Andrew Allison

      Me too!

      • TommyTwo

        You too are a running dog of the Corporate Exploiters? I am in a veritable den of iniquity (or rather inequity)!


  • Andrew Allison

    With the very greatest of respect to WRM, public pronouncements of professors should be taken with several grains of salt. I look forward to correction if I am mistaken, but it’s my impression that public sector union membership is optional in relatively few states. Isn’t the real news that, despite the paucity of “Right to Work”, only 14% of the two million private sector jobs created resulted in union membership? As WI has demonstrated, given the choice a lot of workers would prefer not to keep union leaders and those elected officials to whom they redirect members’ dues in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    With the low energy costs in the US likely to continue, manufacturing is going to grow and some increases in labor gang membership will occur. The majority of these new jobs are going to be in “Right to Work” states as companies will expand where costs are lowest. They will only expand their labor gang work force where the capital has already been spent using pre-existing factories with excess capacity which can quickly and cheaply be expanded.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service