Declining status of union labor on its day

Organized labor finds itself in continuing decline on this Labor Day weekend.

In 1980, the year of President Ronald Reagan’s election, union membership density stood at 23 percent of the workforce. In 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 10.7 percent of the workforce was organized in labor unions.

The steady decline of organized labor has been accompanied by a shift in its makeup, with public sector unions constituting an ever larger share of membership. More than one in three union members is now a public sector worker.

Unionized employees represent only 6.4 percent of the total private workforce. In contrast, 44 percent of local government workers are represented by organized labor, 33 percent of state workers, and 31 percent of federal employees.

But while union workers, particularly in the private sector, have seen steady decline, they can boast of receiving better compensation than their non-union counterparts. According to the BLS, union members receive average weekly earnings of $1,004 compared to $802 for nonunion members.

Unions are geographically concentrated on the West Coast, upper Midwest and in the Northeast, with seven states accounting for more than half of union workers — California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio.

During its long history, organized labor has made major contributions toward worker protections and in the rise of the middle class, including fighting for the establishment of a minimum wage, the concept of an 8-hour workday, prohibitions against child labor, providing occupational safety rules in the workplace, and compensation for extra time worked.

Yet looking at the numbers, there is no question that unions are being challenged by the changing nature of work and have not demonstrated the ability to respond. The union decline has taken place across the Western democracies, as have the structural changes in the working world.

The one salary for all concept, with adjustments only for seniority and job description, was born of an industrial age when workers were cogs in an assembly line. Today’s knowledge economy is far different. Manufacturing jobs in the United States declined from 20 million back in 1980 to 12 million today. Tour a manufacturing plant and expect to find a few people monitoring and adjusting robotic machinery or entering the software codes to operate it.

Many Americans are not tied to workplaces at all, with the boundary between work and liesure activities often blurred. Technology allows many employees to get the job done anywhere and to construct their workday to suit their situation. That may mean finishing a report while waiting for Johnnie to complete soccer practice, checking for the boss’ follow-up comments before heading up to bed, then making the changes to the report in the morning before going to a workout at the fitness center, rather than heading straight to the office.

With their opposition to allowing greater compensation rewards for workers showing individual initiative and an approach tied to the structure of the traditional yet increasingly obsolete workday, unions don’t mesh well with much of the workforce. Many young workers see themselves as free agents, accepting frequent job changes as inevitable, and ready to relocate where what they bring to the table can earn a higher reward.

Whether unions will or even can adapt to such change will dictate their future, either continuing to fade and remaining largely restricted to some segments of the economy, or finding the way to a resurgence.

There is also the potential for unions to gain ground in sectors where the old model does fit, such as large-scale retail. But such initiative face strong corporate, regulatory and political opposition in many states.

On Labor Day, it seems, organized labor is at a cross-road.


The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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