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Unionization Climbs for Two Straight Years, but Remains a Fraction of 1980s Rates

Unionization Climbs for Two Straight Years, but Remains a Fraction of 1980s Rates

New data shows that workers overwhelmingly want unions, but significant union growth will requires new legislation, write David Madland and Karla Walter.

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The number of American workers belonging to a labor union increased for the second year in row—and is now up to 12.4 percent. Prior to 2007, union membership rates had not increased in the last quarter century and the current union membership rates are still a fraction of what they were in the early 1980s. This second year of growth demonstrates an intense desire among Americans to become unionized, but significant legislative changes must occur in order for a substantial portion of the American workforce to get back onto union rolls.

American unionization rates grew from 12.1 percent to 12.4 percent in 2008 after growing from 12 percent to 12.1 percent in 2007. This small increase is unfortunately dwarfed by years of declining union membership rates that have weakened Americans’ economic well-being. Unionization rates have fallen by 4 percentage points since 2000, when the union membership rate was 13.4 percent, and by almost 8 percentage points since 1983, the first year comparable union data are available, when union membership rates were 20.1 percent in 1983.

Declining unionization rates destabilize working families and decrease their wages. Even today, union workers earn significantly more on average than non-union counterparts and union employers are more likely to provide benefits. Years of declining unionization mean workers are not being rewarded for their hard work and are less likely to receive important employer benefits. Most Americans say they would join a union if they could, but the current union selection process is broken, exposing workers to the aggressive tactics of antiunion employers and endangering workplace democracy. It will take substantial legislative changes to allow all Americans a stronger voice on the job and a true opportunity to unionize.

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David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project

Karla Walter

Senior Fellow, Inclusive Economy