NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Union Membership Declines

February 23, 1998

The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show a decline in union membership, a trend that has been almost continuous since the early 1950s.

  • In 1997, just 14.1 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union, down from 14.5 percent in 1996 and 20.1 percent in 1983 (see figure).
  • The number of union members fell by 159,000 last year, even as total jobs rose by 2.6 million.
  • Since 1983, union membership has declined by 1.6 million, while total employment has risen by more than 26 million.

There are many explanations for the decline; for instance, the internationalization of the economy, which has made it harder for unions to maintain a wage premium. Thus in 1983, union workers made 38.2 percent more than comparable nonunion workers, but in 1997 they only made 33.9 percent more.

The decline of unionization is not unique to the U.S. Virtually every major country has experienced the same trend.

  • For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says unionization fell from 36 percent of the labor force in Germany in 1980 to 29 percent in 1994.
  • In Great Britain, unionization has fallen from 50 percent to 34 percent, and in France has fallen from 18 percent to just 9 percent over the same period.
  • The unweighted average union membership for all OECD countries has fallen from 46 percent in 1980 to 40 percent in 1994.

However, unions remain strong politically. Indeed, according to the Federal Election Commission, union political action committees provided 47.6 percent of all contributions to Democratic candidates for Congress in 1996, up from 33.9 percent in 1992.

Source: Bruce Bartlett (senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis), February 23, 1998.


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