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Dormant Union Membership Is a Bad Sign for the Middle Class

New Data Show No Union Growth in 2011

SOURCE: AP/Andy Manis

Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) talks to the media at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. In March of last year, he signed an antiunion bill that stripped public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights. 

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, data released today on the union status of the American workforce in 2011 show no growth in union membership—a troubling sign as the nation debates how to strengthen the middle class. That’s because unions help strengthen the middle class by giving workers a voice in the economy and our democracy. Yet the fact that union membership didn’t significantly decline—even amid a weak economy and harsh political opposition—is a significant accomplishment and offers some hope for the future.

Overall, the BLS figures show that the union membership rate fell from 11.9 percent in 2010 to 11.8 percent in 2011, but the difference is so small that the rate effectively stayed the same. The total number of union members also stayed constant at approximately 14.8 million. The membership rate is the lowest in more than 70 years, continuing a long decline.

Taking a closer look at the numbers, the number of private-sector workers who are union members slightly increased from 7.1 million in 2010 to 7.2 million in 2011, as the percentage of private-sector workers in unions remained constant at 6.9 percent. In contrast, the number of public-sector workers who are union members fell slightly from 7.62 million to 7.56 million, although due to the sharp cutbacks in state employment, the percentage of unionized public-sector workers actually increased slightly from 36.2 percent to 37 percent.

The majority of states had slightly declining or constant union membership rates in 2011. Several states, however, including Colorado, Maryland, and Oregon, had their union membership rate increase. The data in two particular states—Wisconsin and Indiana—are worth taking a look at in depth.

Wisconsin, the site of a large debate over unions early last year, saw its union membership rate decline from 14.2 percent in 2010 to 13.3 percent in 2011. The bill stripping public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights passed by conservatives in Wisconsin unfortunately worked, as membership declined. Wisconsin was not alone in attacking public-sector workers, though, as Ohio and Michigan also passed laws that hurt workers.

Indiana, on the other hand, saw its union membership rate increase from 10.9 percent in 2010 to 11.3 percent in 2011. Regrettably, the membership gains seen in 2011 may not be repeated in 2012. Indiana is on the precipice of passing a “right-to-work” bill that makes collective bargaining and union membership more difficult. Indiana’s union membership, and therefore its middle class, will take a hit if the bill passes.

Nationally, in terms of race and gender, the union membership rate for men declined slightly in 2011, from 12.6 percent in 2010 to 12.4 percent, while the rate for women increased by 0.1 percentage points to 11.2 percent in the same timeframe. African Americans continued to have the highest rate of membership at 13.5 percent in 2011, as white Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans had rates of 11.6 percent, 10.1 percent, and 9.7 percent, respectively. Given that the long-term trend for union membership is decline, and that unions faced great headwinds in 2011, there is some reason to celebrate a lack of continued decline.

But it is still discouraging that union membership is not increasing. The public debate has recently shifted to the topics of income inequality and the state of the middle class. But the health of the union movement should concern anyone interested in creating an economy that works for everyone and not just the wealthy few.

For instance, unions help boost political participation among ordinary citizens—especially among members, but also among nonunion members—and convert this participation into an effective voice for pro-middle-class policies.

This explains why states with a greater percentage of union members have significantly higher voter turnout rates, as well as higher minimum wages, a greater percentage of residents covered by health insurance, stronger social safety nets, and a more progressive tax code.

Strong unions build the middle class by giving workers a voice in the workplace and in our democracy. Building a middle class for the 21st century will be difficult until union membership starts to increase.

David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project and Nick Bunker is a Special Assistant with the Economic Policy team at American Progress.

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