Union membership plummeted in 2012 to the lowest level since the Depression, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The membership rate dropped to 11.3 percent from 11.8 percent, while total membership fell by roughly 400,000 workers, largely due to massive layoffs of teachers, firefighters, and other public employees.
Anti-labor measures passed by Republican-controlled governments in historic union strongholds have also played a part in dwindling membership:
Losses in the public sector are hitting unions particularly hard since that has been one of the few areas where membership was growing over the past two decades. About 51 percent of union members work in government, where until recently, there had been little resistance to union organizing. That began to change when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a law in 2011 eliminating most union rights for government workers. The state lost about 46,000 union members last year, mostly in the public sector.
In Indiana, where a new right-to-work law took effect last March, the state lost about 56,000 union members. The law prohibits unions from requiring workers to pay union fees, even if they benefit from a collective bargaining agreement. Michigan lawmakers approved a similar measure in December.
Union membership has been on the decline since the 1980s, with drastic consequences for middle-class Americans. As unions shed members, middle-class incomes have shrunk and income inequality has soared.
While weakened unions are not the sole cause of these trends, employers have gained an outsized advantage in the labor market. Some companies have threatened to do away with benefits if employees even ask about forming a union. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers continue to strip workers’ protections, despite the fact that anti-union laws tend to be deeply unpopular with the public.