Union Membership Drops in 2016

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on January 26 released its annual estimate of union membership in the United States.  This year’s report showed that union membership dropped to 10.7 percent of the total workforce in 2016. In 2015, union membership had been at 11.1 percent.

Union membership in the private sector dipped slightly from 6.7 percent to 6.4 percent while public sector unionization fell from 35.2 percent to 34.4 percent, which was still over five times higher than in the private-sector.  In addition to overall membership, 1.7 million workers were represented under union contracts but were not union members, which was up approximately 70,000 from 2015. 

The union membership rate reflects the single worst year for union membership in 80 years—the rate has not been lower since 1936, when it was 9 percent. Moreover, as the graph above illustrates, it continues organized labor’s longstanding decline since reaching an apogee of 35 percent in 1955. 

Last year’s report indicated that the union membership rate had remained flat, but overall membership grew by more than 200,000, which seemed like it could have been a minor source of comfort for labor leaders who have endeavored continuously to reverse unions’ decline.  However, this year’s report reveals that union membership dropped roughly 240,000 from 14.8 million in 2015 to approximately 14.6 million in 2016, thereby negating that one encouraging aspect from last year’s numbers.   

As this blog has reported previously, organized labor has looked for creative—if legally dubious— ways to stem the ongoing decline in membership, and for the last eight years, it had an extremely sympathetic majority at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that did everything it could think of to rewrite labor law to favor unions. 

Unions were unable to capitalize on that advantage.  Instead, it seems that the NLRB’s efforts did little more than saddle businesses with ever more onerous, and in some cases simply bizarre, regulatory hoops through which to jump.  If the Trump administration is looking to repeal harmful regulations, the NLRB is a target-rich environment.