The Bureau of Labor Statistics on January 18 released its annual estimate of union membership in the United States. This year’s report showed that union membership dropped to 10.5 percent of the total workforce in 2018, which is 0.2 percentage points lower than the prior year. The decline resumes a steady, six-decade slide in membership that had briefly paused in 2017, and it represents the lowest union membership rate since the mid-1930s. In addition to the lower membership rate, the total number of union members also dipped slightly to 14.7 million, a decrease of approximately 100,000.
Union membership in the private sector slipped from 6.5 percent to 6.4 percent, and public sector unionization dropped from 34.4 percent to 33.9 percent, which is still over five times as high. Moreover, nearly half of all union members work in the public sector, with the total number of public sector union members being 7.2 million versus 7.6 million in the private sector. As BLS noted in its press release, “within the public sector, the union membership rate was highest in local government (40.3 percent), which employs many workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as police officers, firefighters, and teachers.”
In addition to overall membership, 1.6 million workers were represented under union contracts but were not union members, which is essentially unchanged from 2017. However, as with the union membership rate, the total percentage of union-represented workers including non-members edged down slightly from 11.9 percent to 11.7 percent.
The union membership rate remains at its lowest level since 1936, when it started climbing to its apogee of 35 percent in 1955. As the graph above illustrates, though, membership in unions has steadily declined since then, and there seems to be little evidence that trend will reverse itself. Despite pumping tens of millions of dollars in to so-called worker center front groups and even more than that into electoral politics, organized labor’s leaders still have yet to identify the solution to what they rightly see as an existential crisis.