NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Employment Policy Foundation: Why Unions Are Declining

June 1, 1998

U.S. unions have suffered sizable membership losses over the past four decades, and 1997 continued this trend with a drop of nearly 160,000. Even public sector unionization -- which expanded during the 1970s, helping cushion the drop in total union membership -- declined for a third consecutive year in 1997. In 1997, public sector unions accounted for two-thirds of the total decrease in union membership.

Researchers say the two most important reasons for unions' decline are changes in the economy and the demographics of the workforce. The most important demographic change has been the increasing share of workers who are women.

  • Research indicates women may be less likely to join a union because they are more likely to work part-time or intermittently.
  • Since 1960, women's labor force participation rate has risen by 22.1 percentage points, and the proportion of married women with children who work soared from 28 percent in 1960 to 70 percent in 1996.
  • Over the period 1950 to 1990, women in the workplace accounted for 19.6 percent of the decline in unions' share of workers.

Changes in the economy have also contributed to unions' decline. Since 1960, employment in the service sector has grown by 182 percent, while employment in the traditionally unionized manufacturing sector has increased only 19 percent.

Other reasons contributing to the decline in union membership are the historically low level of union organization efforts, and employment legislation that makes it easier for individual workers to deal with problems in the workplace.

Source: Anita U. Hattiangadi, "Updating the Reasons for Union Decline," Fact and Fallacy, May 1998, Employment Policy Foundation, 1015 15th Street, N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, D.C. 20005, (202) 789-8685


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