Union Report: New Year, Same Old Decline in Union Membership. But the Teachers Unions Are Still Big Fish in a Shrinking Pond

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

A short jaunt through last year’s headlines shows quite a few media outlets enamored with the idea of a resurgence in labor unions. Some placed their faith in the annual Gallup poll that showed high support for organized labor. Others saw the rise in union militancy, strikes and walkouts and asked, “Will an age of activism and strikes lead to union growth?”

Now we have the answer: No.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership last Wednesday, and the news is the same as it ever was. Unions lost 170,000 members, while the U.S. economy added more than 1.6 million jobs. Only 10.3 percent of all salaried workers belonged to a union in 2019. Even that figure is optimistic, since the bureau does not include the self-employed in its calculations. The bureau estimates the number of self-employed individuals at about 10 million.

Here’s a graph of the unionization rate since 1985:

If it were a stock, it would be well past time to sell.

As you can see from the graph’s steady slope, the decline remains virtually unchanged through Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, dramatic alterations in the composition of Congress and statehouses, and amid the working lives of an entire generation of Americans.

The difference in unionization rates between the public and private sectors is enormous. Only 6.2 percent of private-sector employees belong to a union, while 33.6 percent of government employees do. The most heavily unionized job sector (39.4 percent) is local government, a category that includes most public school teachers, police officers and firefighters. Even that sector is in decline, with 105,000 fewer union members than in 2018.

The statistics also highlight an important truth about the composition of the organized labor movement. Computation is difficult, due to the number of merged affiliates, but the working membership of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers accounts for approximately 42 percent of public employee union membership. In fact, more than 20 percent of all union members belong to NEA, AFT or both.

The bright side for the teachers unions is that they are perhaps the only unions remaining whose activism can dramatically affect a region’s economy and day-to-day operations. They are the last big fish in a small, and slowly evaporating, pond.

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