Union Representation Shrinks in Several States

The declines are happening mostly in places that enacted anti-union laws or had job cuts in heavily unionized industries.
by | January 29, 2016
Unionized employees rally inside the Wisconsin state Capitol as lawmakers debate the right-to-work bill, which was eventually signed into law. (AP/Amber Arnold)

Nationally, labor union representation has remained flat in recent years. But, according to new data, it's significantly declining in some states.

The U.S. Department of Labor published updated statistics Thursday detailing unions’ presence in the workforce. It reported that 12.3 percent of U.S. workers were represented by a union in 2015. That’s the same as last year but still only half what it was in the early 1980s.

In all, 22 states recorded declines in union representation last year -- several of which have seen representation trending down for years. The biggest drivers of falling union representation are anti-union laws or cutbacks in unionized industries.

In nowhere has union representation dwindled more recently than in Wisconsin, once a union stronghold. Unions now represent 9.4 percent of its workforce -- down from 12.5 percent in 2014 and 15.1 percent in 2010, according to federal data. One reason for the sharp decline is, of course, the 2011 Act 10 law pushed by Gov. Scott Walker. That law eliminated collective bargaining for many public workers and made them contribute more toward their health care and pensions. More recently, the state enacted a right-to-work law last year prohibiting private-sector unions from requiring the employees they represent to join or pay dues. Twenty-five states currently have some form of right-to-work law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It’s not at all surprising that in states where the [right-to-work] laws have happened, numbers have gone down,” said Eve Weinbaum, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts.

In addition to right-to-work laws, states in recent years have pushed legislation to prevent public unions from automatically deducting dues from paychecks or bans on project labor agreements, which require construction projects to use union labor.

Weinbaum said laws like these that chip away at organized labor progressively diminish membership over time. Research suggests that longtime union workers generally remain members despite changes. But as they switch jobs or retire, the employees who take their place are less likely to join if recent laws limit unions' influence or ability to collect dues.

Absent any new laws, downsizing in unionized sectors also cut into a state’s union workforce.

In Alaska, for example, union representation dipped from 24.4 percent in 2014 to 21.7 percent last year -- the second largest decline of any state behind Wisconsin. Gordon Lafer, a labor studies and political science professor at the University of Oregon, attributed the decrease to a loss of unionized energy and construction jobs stemming from the collapse of oil prices. Because the state's budget is largely tied to oil revenues, it instituted a hiring freeze across much of its public-sector workforce, which is relatively large compared to other states.

Similarly, Washington state’s union representation rate declined little last year, but it has slowly fallen from 21.3 percent in 2010 to 18 percent last year. The state hasn’t passed any major legislation involving unions recently, but cuts to its heavily unionized industries -- government, aerospace and timber -- may be taking a toll on employment.

Union-represented workers are particularly scarce in South Carolina, where they represent just 2.9 percent of the workforce -- the lowest share of any state. Union representation there dropped slightly last year and has dipped 3.3 percentage points since 2010, one of the largest declines nationally. Although the state’s right-to-work law has been in place since 1954 and the legislature hasn’t enacted any new laws recently, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has been a vocal opponent of organized labor.

A few other states, meanwhile, are seeing slight short-term shifts in the opposite direction.

After increasing their union-represented workforce the year before, Connecticut, Kansas and Mississippi recorded some of the largest gains last year. And Arkansas, after dropping in 2012, has seen its union representation climb each of the past three years.

Looking back further, the unionized share of the U.S. workforce has been roughly cut in half since the early 1980s. Interestingly, though, Americans’ views of labor unions haven’t wavered. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey reported 48 percent of Americans held favorable opinions of unions, nearly the same (47 percent) as in 1985. A Gallup survey also showed relatively little changes in public perceptions of unions, although approval ratings dropped in 2009 and have since rebounded as the economy recovered.

Where unions are headed from here, Lafer said, will depend largely on the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case determining whether public unions can continue requiring nonmember employees to pay fees covering the cost of negotiating labor contracts. A reversal would deal a major blow to unions, particularly given that government employees represent a sizable share of the nation's unionized workforce.