Labor Day weekend has come and gone; time to once again mark the informal passage of summer and take stock of the American labor movement. This year I expect pundits across the nation will either lament or gleefully point out that private sector union membership has plummeted back to the share it held during the Roosevelt presidency (Teddy, not Franklin). The decline is a startling thing. In just 50 years, union membership in the U.S. has dropped by 80 percent. No mainstream American institution of note has dissipated at this pace before. Today there are more Americans who receive disability payments than those who belong to private sector unions.
As of 2012, a tad bit more than half of union members were government workers and more than one-third of government workers belonged to a union. However, that stronghold of union participation faces even greater risk to its membership than do the private sector unions. The passage of right-to-work legislation in Indiana and Michigan has seen rapid declines in state and local government union membership. In Wisconsin, public sector union membership plummeted when Act 10, which ended government dues collection, was passed.
In short, if you don’t like the way American unions conduct business and wish to see them go away, this must be a happy time. If you care deeply about the labor movement, this is the 50th year of bad news.
There are many reasons for labor unions’ decline, but job losses are not among them. Nearly every year since 1970 has been bad for unions, no matter the state of the economy. Businesses have become better at opposing unions, but if Pinkerton’s armed men couldn’t slow unions a century ago, how can lawyers do so today?
Unions are disappearing in part because of their early successes. The vast improvements in the American workplace in the last century were begat by the labor movement. Having been successful at bringing about what most Americans wanted, many in the labor movement have turned their attention to issues most workers do not desire.