There’s a dramatic decline in unionized private sector workers in the U.S. today. What changed?

Sep 7, 2016

In the mid-1950s, one out of every three people working in private enterprise in the United States was in a union. Today, only 6-7 percent of private sector workers still pay their dues. What changed over that period of time?

Washington University sociology professor Jake Rosenfeld has spent his career studying labor unions and the shift in the labor movement. In 2014, Rosenfeld authored the book “What Unions No Longer Do,” which detailed the decline of labor and labor unions.

On Wednesday, Rosenfeld discussed the changing labor movement and a new study from the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which he contributed to.

He also discussed what led to the downfall of union membership in the United States. On the surface he said, automation and globalization are partly to blame. Yet, peer nations overseas face the same issues and their labor movements remained comparatively strong.

The difference is that, starting in the 1970s in the U.S., Rosenfeld said, an “employer offensive” began to get organized. Facing the aforementioned pressures, employers set their sights on ridding costly union workers from their systems.

“They used tactics such as threatening union organizers with termination and terminating union sympathizers,” Rosenfeld said. “They brought in a whole new class of consultants and law firms that were experts at ridding employers of existing unions and preventing new ones from cropping up.”

“Right to Work,” a big issue in Missouri for the past few years, also played a big role in the shift of manufacturing plants not only overseas but into “lightly organized” states in more southern states.

“If you are a worker in an organized plant, in a non-‘Right to Work’ state, you have to pay your fair share of union dues,” Rosenfeld said. “You don’t have to sign with the union but you have to pay the costs for contract and benefit negotiation. In ‘Right to Work’ states, you don’t. You can opt out of all payments to the union, despite the fact the union has to represent your interests when it comes time for contract negotiations.”

This meant that fewer workers had to become unionized themselves.

Places like Las Vegas and New York City are still hotbeds of union membership. St. Louis is no longer considered a ‘union city,’ Rosenfeld said, but Missouri has typical rates of union membership on the whole.

One way that private sector unions, facing declining membership have evolved is to transition to public sector membership. Movements like the Fight for $15 and the adjunct faculty unionization efforts are examples of this evolution.

"Many American workers today don't have a good idea of what unions are, what unions do. The desire for unionization on the part of workers is outweighed by employer opposition."

Rosenfeld said that, according to public opinion surveying, over half of non-union workers today say they would be interested in joining a union if the opportunity presented itself.

“The desire is there,” Rosenfeld said. “But with unionization rates so low, many American workers today don’t have a good idea of what unions are, what unions do. The desire for unionization on the part of workers is outweighed by employer opposition.”

The study that Rosenfeld contributed to detailed how such declining union membership costs non-union workers about $133 billion in lost wages annually. The study took efforts to separate the impact of union membership from greater forces of globalization and automation, Rosenfeld said.

Listen to the rest of the conversation with Rosenfeld, where he details the results of his study’s findings here:

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