24.2%: private sector union membership rate, 1973
6.6%: private sector union membership rate, 2014
Source: Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson
A generation ago labor unions were often a familiar feature of the American workplace, but in private businesses across the country, unions have been shrinking. Today fewer than one in 15 private sector workers belongs to a union, compared with almost one in four back in 1973.
But dwindling union participation in the private sector stands in stark contrast with union membership among public sector workers, which rose sharply in the 1970s and has been relatively steady since 1980 at around 35 percent. Overall union membership has fallen by about a half since 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, driven entirely by the decline in the private sector.
The causes of falling union participation are hard to pinpoint but may be attributed to several factors, including the pressures of global trade, technological change, the shift away from domestic manufacturing and a tougher stance against unions from government and corporate leaders.
It is probably no accident that the drop in union membership has occurred as the incomes of many working Americans have stagnated. “The decline in unions is a huge factor explaining what’s happened to middle-class wages,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. He calculated it could account for one-third of the growth in wage inequality for men and one-fifth of that for women from 1973 to 2007.
Shrinking union participation affects the broader work force, since unions tend to provide spillover benefits to nonunion members. According to an article written by Mr. Mishel and David Cooper, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, employee compensation declined most in states like Michigan and Ohio where collective bargaining also declined sharply.
“When collective bargaining is strong in an industry, what you find is that it raises nonunion employee wages too,” Mr. Mishel said.