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January 28 2020

Workers Walk Out: Union Rates Fell to Lowest Level in History

by Patrice Lee Onwuka

Are unions still important to Americans? The dwindling numbers of union members in our workforce suggests a big resounding ‘no.’ Thanks to a strong, dynamic economy and technology, workers no longer depend on unions for opportunity.

According to new government data, union membership fell to a record low of 10.3 percent in 2019. That’s nearly half the rate in 1983 and a 2-point drop from a decade earlier.

Whereas unions were the backbone of the labor force for our grandparents and parents, they hardly register for younger generations. That’s not a bad thing. 

This trend started well before President Trump took office, but his policies, technology, and right-to-work laws across the country merit credit for this mass union exodus. 

At play is a strong and dynamic economy generating a bounty of jobs and flexible working arrangements that today’s workers value. 

The labor market is tight with record-low unemployment under the Trump administration. Employers are willing to increase pay and expand benefits to attract or retain workers.

Workers may longer see the value in a union boss fighting for the same pay rate, benefits, and hours for a bunch of workers when they can negotiate the best pay, benefits, and flexible arrangements for themselves.

There’s also a more fundamental shift at play in our labor force. The traditional employer-employee relationship is increasingly replaced by the contractor-hirer model and the traditional 9-5 job is being replaced by many different work arrangements, which allow workers to earn a living while balancing other priorities such as caregiving and entrepreneurship. Technology has proliferated contract work and it has changed when and how we work granting workers more freedom and autonomy. 

At the core of these changes is a desire for greater flexibility. 

Flexibility is huge for today’s workers, especially younger workers. Today, 1 in 5 jobs in America is held by a contract worker and that is expected to grow to half within a decade. According to Pew Research, two out of three gig workers say they are doing their preferred type of work. 

These are major trends that will only continue to spell trouble for unions if they don’t break out of their outdated mode of thinking about work.

Finally, in recent years, states have passed right-to-work laws that free employees to work in unionized workplaces without actually joining the union or paying regular union dues.

All of these trends and policies spell doom for unions which have now turned their attention to pushing for laws that force workers back into their old way of working such as California’s AB 5. They are not helping their case but furthering their own demise.

Here a picture of today’s union membership according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Unions are dominated by public-sector workers (33.6 percent) compared to private-sector workers (6.2 percent).
  • Men have higher union membership rates than women (10.8 percent versus 9.7 percent).
  • Black workers are more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers. 
  • Union membership is highest among older workers. Just 4.4 percent of 16-24-year-olds are union members compared to 12.7 percent of 55-64-year-olds.
  • Over half of all the nation’s 14.6 million union members were concentrated in just seven states (even though those states only accounted for a third of the workforce): California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington.




Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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