The share of U.S. workers belonging to a labor union fell slightly last year, hovering near a historic low as unions struggle to maintain membership.
The number of workers who are union members dropped only marginally, from 14.8 million in 2017 to 14.7 million in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But an increase in workers in the U.S. meant that the percentage in unions fell more sharply, from 10.7 percent to 10.5.
Overall, unions in the private sector fared better than their counterparts in the public sector. Private-sector unions represented 18,000 more workers in 2018 than they did the previous year, while unions for government workers represented 80,000 fewer. (About 9 percent of workers who are represented by a union are not union members.)
The share of public-sector employees who are union members fell from 34.4 percent to 33.9.
The AFL-CIO labor federation, which represents 55 unions, said the numbers don’t tell the whole story of organized labor in 2018.
“[Last year] was one of the most substantial years for collective action in American history,” the federation said in a memo. “In the face of unprecedented attacks, the labor movement continues to show tremendous resilience. Public approval of unions is soaring. And new organizing campaigns in non-union workplaces are gaining steam.”
Indeed, 2018 was a big year for unions. A wave of massive teacher strikes hit West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, as educators closed schools and rallied for more resources and higher pay. Last year also marked a highly successful multi-city strike by the hospitality union Unite Here, which won significant gains for Marriott hotel workers.
But the government numbers indicate the long-term headwinds unions still face.
An estimated one-third of workers belonged to unions at organized labor’s peak in the 1950s. The share has dropped steadily and has been roughly halved since the early 1980s, when the Labor Department officially started tracking membership. Labor groups now face fierce anti-union campaigns from corporations and must fend off legislative efforts to weaken unions in states around the country.
The relative strength of public-sector unions has helped prop up organized labor as a whole in recent years. But those unions suffered a major setback at the Supreme Court in June, when the justices ruled 5-4 that government workers can’t be required to pay fees to the unions that represent them. The decision, Janus v. AFSCME, effectively made the entire public sector right-to-work and invited workers to drop their financial support for their unions.
There’s no way to measure how the effect of that decision is reflected in the government data, if at all. Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a blog post that the new figures tell us nothing about the Janus decision’s impact.
Still, the largest public-sector unions argued Friday that the new numbers indicate the efforts to undermine unions have failed to gain traction. Those unions ― the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ― pre-emptively launched programs to deepen their relationship with members and retain them in the wake of the Janus decision.
“In fact, our union is growing, and winning,” Randi Weingarten, the AFT’s president, said in a statement. “Since Janus, we have had 11 organizing wins, adding thousands of new members across higher education, healthcare and [support staff] units.”