Union membership took a hit in 2012, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). From 2011 to 2012 the share of employees who belong to unions dropped from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent. The BLS calculates that 14.4 million working Americans are members of unions.
One out of every five American workers belonged to a union when the BLS began collecting membership data in 1983. But the face of labor has changed. In manufacturing, a sector with traditionally high union membership, the total number of jobs has dropped from 18 million in 1984 to 11.9 million in 2012. But even among the remaining manufacturing jobs, the union membership rate has dropped.
Union leaders have been fighting the spread of right-to-work laws, which prohibit requiring union representation or union fees as a condition of employment, in an effort to maintain their numbers. Michigan passed right-to-work legislation in 2012. As unions sued to block the law, a memo from the Michigan Education Association, acquired by the free market Mackinac Center for Public Policy, suggested the union might consider legal actions against its own members to collect dues should they try to terminate their memberships before their agreements end.
But while unions fear the loss of membership as right-to-work legislation passes, they may be missing the real story: Overall, states with right-to-work laws have gained union members, while other states have lost them. Mackinac Center Director of Public Policy F. Vincent Vernuccio speculates that unions are forced to be more responsive to their members’ needs in a right-to-work state. “Unions will start to shape up,” he says, “or better unions will come in and take their place.”