February 20, 2014

American unions membership declines as public support fluctuates

Last week’s vote by workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn. plant against joining the United Auto Workers union — despite VW’s tacit encouragement — points up the challenges faced by U.S. organized labor. Even though unions retain much public support, the share of American workers who actually belong to one has been falling for decades and is at its lowest level since the Great Depression.

In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2013, about half (51%) of Americans said they had favorable opinions of labor unions, versus 42% who said they had unfavorable opinions about them. That was the highest favorability rating since 2007, though still below the 63% who said they were favorably disposed toward unions in 2001. In a separate 2012 survey, 64% of Americans agreed that unions were necessary to protect working people (though 57% also agreed that unions had “too much power”).

As of last year, however, only 11.3% of wage and salary workers belonged to unions, down from 20.1% in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (At their peak in 1954, 34.8% of all U.S. wage and salary workers belonged to unions, according to the Congressional Research Service.) While the unionization rate among public-sector workers has held fairly steady over that 30-year span (just over a third of government workers are unionized), it’s plummeted in the private sector — from 16.8% in 1983 to 6.7% three decades later. The reasons for that decline are many and heatedly debated — from the impact of globalization on U.S. manufacturing to intense hostility from businesses to unions’ relative lack of success in organizing service- and information-industry workers.

FT_14.02.19_LaborUnions_2The South long has been the nation’s least-unionized region; all but one state of the old Confederacy had a unionization rate below 6.5% in 2013 (in the lone exception, Alabama, 10.7% of workers belonged to a union, still below the national rate). Historically, the South also has been the region least favorably disposed toward organized labor: In 1987, according to Pew Research’s American Values Survey, 59% of Southerners agreed that unions were necessary, compared with 65% in the West and 74% in the Northeast and Midwest.

But since then, as unionization has fallen nationally, other regions have come to look more like the South. In the 2012 American Values Survey, the share of people agreeing that unions were necessary had barely budged in the South (60%) and West (64%), but had fallen markedly in the Midwest (65%).

Topics: Work and Employment, National Economy, Business and Labor

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. john wilson2 years ago

    Great article, with supportive stats.

    I predict a surge in new union membership over the next ten years as unions reevaluate their roles to the overall good of all workers, not just union workers. This new paradigm shift will start in the new home construction industry in 2015 and spread to other sectors by 2017. By 2020 union membership will be up 2% in the public sector and a whopping 6% in the private sector. In 2025 union membership will be in the 30% range, with public sector being 36% and private sector in the 20%+ range.

    Sounds unbelievable right?
    Try out this Prediction – AFL-CIO will split by 2018 and each house will support their own political party. AFL – democrats; CIO – republicans with morality issues completely off either platform at which time the millennials will have a positive favorability towards unions by 76%. This view by the millennials will continue to support union growth over the next thirty years.


  2. Helen Price3 years ago

    As I read your article, I was shocked to find that only a little over 10% of the workers in the United States are members of a union. The decline of workers belonging to a union from a little over 1/3 to 1/11 is truly surprising to me. My husband and I relocated after his retirement from the west to the south. When we recently went to file our taxes, the preparing was very surprised that my husband and her husband belonged to the same union. She expressed this more than once. As a result of her comments, I became curious and began to research what percentage of American workers belonged to a union. Again I was astounded by the results like yours that I found. My husband now receives a pension from his union and social security that he paid in for over 40 years of working. This has allowed us to have a comfortable retirement. My thoughts are what will happen to Americans in years to come who have no union pension and social security becomes privatized? SMH & Praying!

  3. Joyce Clemons3 years ago

    I was a member of a public sector union (state government) from 1986 to 2010, beginning very shortly after State mandated public collective bargaining began. With specific civil service categories designated to certain BU’s, it was not a choice, but a done deal. Few will pay fair share dues and forego their vote. By 1995 the BU began behaving in a more tyrannical manner toward members, part of the pressure being political disfavor of the Collective Bargaining bill by Republican administrations, partly because the SEIU began to demand that members toe the line on many of their more extreme political planks. Steward were poorly trained, if at all, to represent in grievances. The union began making false public claims on State policies that were actually realistic, sound, and beneficial to direct consumers of many state services. Unions are a necessary evil, just like government! Corruption and self-serving are part of the deal. Employees are not to blame, the lion’s share work their buns off and keep their skills fresh. But the system can drive the most diligent and sound workers into mental and physical illness. Ageism is also now a huge reality, and the unions are just as evil toward 50-something loyals as the employers are. My advice to the 30-something people that now despise the holders of essential institutional memory: Save every dime, and get out with your life as soon as you can. It comes around.

  4. Jane Horton-Leasman3 years ago

    Why very little is “Made In America” anymore.

  5. Vlad3 years ago

    Would have loved to see the “percentage” decline in the “Private Sector” alone.