State-Level Policies Threaten to Further Weaken Unions

Ben Fairchild of Decatur, Indiana, displays a sign outside of the Statehouse in Indianapolis on January 4, 2012.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released data today showing that the national union membership rate dropped to 11.3 percent in 2012—a net decline of 0.5 percentage points from 2011. The private-sector unionization rate continued its steady decline, dropping to 6.6 percent from 6.9 percent in 2011. And in a new and troubling—though expected—trend, the union membership drop in the public sector was more pronounced: Its rate dropped to 35.9 percent from 37 percent in 2011. The long and steady decline in union membership is worrisome, as unions are vital for a strong middle class. (see Figure 1)

State-level policy has recently become increasingly important to the fate of unions. States such as Indiana and Michigan passed “right-to-work” laws in 2012 that undermine the strength of unions by requiring them to provide services for which they are not compensated, while Wisconsin passed a law in 2011 that repealed collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public-sector workers. These policy choices, as well as similar ones made in the past, can significantly impact unionization rates, and they help explain the wide variation in unionization among states. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics data released today, along with data from an online database managed by economists Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, we can see how trends in unionization have differed across states in recent years.

Since 1983, the earliest year for which comparable data is available, the overall unionization rate has declined—from 20.1 percent to 2012’s 11.3 percent. This decline, however, has not been uniform across the 50 states, due in part to states’ differing labor laws. Some states allow public-sector workers to collectively bargain, while others do not. Similarly, 24 states have “right-to-work” laws on the books that undermine unions by making them provide services without compensation. These policy differences are part of the reason why a state such as New York—which allows public-sector workers to collectively bargain—has a unionization rate of 23.2 percent, while a state such as North Carolina—a “right-to-work” state with weak rights for public-sector workers—has a unionization rate of only 2.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Using data on union membership rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Hirsch’s and Macpherson’s database, we can also see how union membership rates have changed across the states over time. From 2009—roughly the end of the Great Recession—through 2012, states saw their union membership rates decline by an average of 0.25 percentage points per year. Compare that rate of decline to 0.15 percentage points per year between 2001 and 2007, the average rate of decline during the previous recovery. Indeed, it appears as though the decline in union membership rates is accelerating in the post-Great Recession economy. The overall level of employment may be growing, but union members are becoming a smaller and smaller share of the labor force.

Of course, the decline in union membership rates has been worse in some states than in others. Figure 2 shows each state’s average annual percentage-point decline in its union membership rate from 2009 through 2012 and compares those changes with the previous recovery from 2001 to 2007.

Several of the states that passed laws undermining workers’ rights have seen a significant fall-off in union membership. Wisconsin, which repealed collective bargaining rights for most of its public-sector workers in 2011, saw its overall union membership rate decline by an average of 1 percentage point a year from 2009 to 2012. In fact, Wisconsin’s union membership rate dropped by 2.1 percentage points from 2011 to 2012—one of the largest drops in the country, according to the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moreover, Indiana saw its overall union membership rate drop from 11.3 percent in 2011 to 9.1 percent in 2012, as its “right-to-work” bill went into affect. And Michigan—a state that also passed a “right-to-work” bill in 2012 and previously passed an emergency manager law, which allowed unelected officials to unilaterally renegotiate union contracts—saw its union membership rate decline by an average of 0.55 percentage points a year from 2009 to 2012. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state’s membership rate dropped by 0.9 percentage points alone from 2011 to 2012. The trend of deunionization in these states will only worsen if these laws continue to stand.

State governments have been the focus of labor policy in recent years, as conservative governors and legislatures have passed bills that affect organizing in both the public and the private sectors. These policies threaten to accelerate the decline in unionization that has been so pronounced over the past 30 years. These state-level attacks must be rejected, and policies that help workers freely choose whether or not to organize should be adopted if we want to strengthen organized labor. Because strong unions are necessary for a strong middle class, these policies will help create a vibrant middle class—the engine of economic growth.

David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Nick Bunker is a Research Assistant at CAPAF.