Union membership in Missouri has dropped to its lowest rate in 26 years, according to new numbers released earlier this week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The state’s 214,000 union members made up just 8.4 percent of all wage and salary workers in 2014, down 0.2 percent from the year prior. Back in 1989, when comparable state data was first available, Missouri had a union membership rate of 15.5 percent.
Likewise, Missouri’s membership rate has been lower than the national average since 2004. But Missouri’s declining numbers are reflecting a nationwide trend, said Linda Nickisch of the bureau’s Kansas City office. Last year, only 14.6 million wage and salary workers nationwide, or 11.1 percent of the country’s employees, were union members.
“In 2014, 27 states and the District of Columbia all saw a decline over the year in their membership rate, so it’s kind of a comment on what we’re seeing, a change in our workforce and our members of unions,” Nickisch said.
The country has seen declining union membership for the last 30 to 40 years due to a “constellation of factors,” according to Marion Crain, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law at Washington University-St. Louis and vice provost.
Crain said very high rates of employer opposition to unions coupled with a “relatively weak” National Labor Relations Board have contributed to the trend. She also cites external market sources, like globalization, outsourcing, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, as primary causes for declining membership.
Politics have also played a role, she said. In states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, Crain said public sector unions had traditionally been strong and helped “shore up” overall union numbers. But in the last several years, those states have passed bills that “make it more difficult for unions,” Crain said.
“For example, public sector employees have to opt in to union membership instead of opting out,” she said. “That ‘nudge factor’ has a major effect on union membership numbers.”
Crain said declining union membership is “great news for businesses” increasingly squeezed by a competitive global market. With weaker unions, businesses have “more of a free hand” to set wages and establish benefits. But Crain said workers should be concerned.
“It’s unions that press for advances like increases in the minimum wage legislatively, so essentially unions are the voice for working people in the legislature and more and more in politics,” she said. “As they decline…workers lose that sort of voice.”
Additionally, unions effectively employ the “threat effect,” Crain said, which encourages employers to provide good benefits and wages to avoid workers turning to unions. But part of the problem, Crain said, is that many workers don’t realize what unions do to advance worker-friendly legislation and protect worker rights.
“The average worker on the street is not particularly supportive of unions, at least in the abstract,” she said. “Most people believe their rights are largely protected by statutes as opposed to by unions. Those statutes are not static. They are fluid and dynamic and judicial interpretations can change the meaning of those statutes.”
But Crain said unions are making some headway in showing their value – at least behind-the-scenes. Crain said unions are trying to gain a “foothold” in the service sector market of low-wage jobs where future growth will likely be.
As such, unions are a “major force” in the growing movement of fast food workers seeking a high minimum wage, as has been seen in Missouri. Unions are also challenging legal standards in order to hold large employers like McDonald’s liable for violations at the corporate as well as franchise level.
“Even though changes are going to be coming in response to the actions of workers banding together through organizations that aren’t necessarily called unions, like the Fast Food Forward organization, it’s unions know-how, pocketbooks, and their organizational support and savvy that is making this possible,” Crain said.
Of course, the question remains whether that savvy manifests into increased union membership. Crain said many unions are hopeful.
“As workers gain more power and increase their wages and benefits through the process of collective organizing with the assistance of unions, then they will see that in order to entrench those gains and advance those gains further, they’ll need unions,” she said.