Labor, and Middle Class, Still Shrinking

Can we at least agree to stop using the term “Big Labor?” Whatever else may be said of the American union movement, it’s not really big any more.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its report on the number of Americans in unions in 2012, and it tells a tale of steady, and in some cases, dramatic shrinkage. In 2011, 11.8 percent of American workers were unionized; last year, that figure dropped to 11.3 percent. The percentage of public sector workers in unions dropped from 37.0 percent to 35.9 percent, while the share of unionized private sector workers went from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent. For all intents and purposes, collective bargaining in the U.S. private sector has just about vanished.

In 1970, there were 17.8 million union members in a nation of 203 million. Last year, 14.4 million Americans were union members (down by 400,000 from the previous year) in a nation of 315 million people. In percentage terms, the 11.3 percent national unionization rate is just about one-third what it was when the AFL and CIO merged in 1955.

The new BLS figures make clear that manufacturing, which has been shrinking for decades, is making a bit of a comeback in the United States. But unionized and well-paying manufacturing jobs aren’t. While the number of workers employed in manufacturing grew by about 340,000 last year, the number of unionized manufacturing workers declined by roughly 86,000 (from 10.5 percent to 9.6 percent of the manufacturing workforce).

The effect on wages couldn’t be more stark: While unionized manufacturing workers saw their average weekly wage rise by $36 (to $872), their ten-times-more-numerous non-union counterparts experienced an average weekly wage increase of just $6 (to $786).

Several states in the industrial Midwest that came under Republican control in the 2010 elections saw significant decreases in union membership. In Indiana, which enacted a right-to-work law that took effect last year, membership fall from 302,000 to 246,000, while Wisconsin, where Republicans led by Governor Scott Walker outlawed public sector collective bargaining, saw a decline in membership from 339,000 to 293,000. But the decline of unions is a nationwide phenomenon: Three dark blue states that experienced significant declines were Connecticut (where the unionized share of the workforce went from 16.8 percent to 14.0 percent), Illinois (16.2 percent to 14.6 percent) and Maryland (12.4 percent to 10.6 percent). The only sizable blue state that had an uptick in union membership was California, where the rate of unionization inched up from 17.1 percent to 17.2 percent.

Unions are still big come election time, of course, since they do a good job of getting their members to the polls. With steadily fewer members to mobilize, however, the unions have also expanded their universe to include non-members to whom they provide political materials and whom they also register and get to the voting booths. In last November’s election, the AFL-CIO’s celebrated door-to-door canvass program in white working-class neighborhoods, Working America, measurably cut down Mitt Romney’s edge among those voters in the states of the industrial Midwest, where President Obama ran 5 points higher among those voters than he did elsewhere—a big enough increase to put Ohio in his column. Similarly, the unions, with SEIU in the lead, also were key to turning out Latino and African American voters in swing states.

Today’s numbers suggest that unions will have to redouble their election-season efforts among non-members, as their own numbers continue to shrink. They also should cause economists—a group not particularly inclined to acknowledge realities that exist outside their economic models—to rethink their belief that the evisceration of the American middle class can be explained entirely by the mechanization and globalization of work.

The new numbers tell us that collective bargaining has essentially disappeared from the American scene. If you don’t believe that this vanishing act is connected to the fact that wage income now constitutes the lowest share of both corporate revenues and Gross Domestic Product since World War II, you probably shouldn’t keep pretending that you know something about the economy.

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