NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What's Ailing the Labor Movement?

September 5, 2001

Labor unions have been losing members and clout for the past several decades. Unions now represent only 16 percent of the non-farm workforce.

About 43 percent of union members today work for governments at all levels -- a totally disproportionate number considering that government workers are less than 10 percent of the workforce.

Why has the wind gone out of organized labor's sails? Analysts offer some interesting theories and insights:

  • Industrial unions have suffered the greatest declines, in part because automation has steadily shrunk the size of the industrial workforce.
  • Much of industry has moved to the rural South -- where workers are skeptical of unions.
  • The higher-skilled workers who now run the complex and expensive machines of higher industry are well paid and work under good conditions -- and it is not clear to them how paying a substantial chunk of their salaries in union dues or going on strike will better their lot.
  • Workers in the fast-growing service segment are harder to organize than factory workers -- because they tend to be more individualistic and identify more closely with management.

Very low levels of inflation recently have removed a key source of worker discontent. In inflation-ridden 1979, the U.S. suffered 235 major work stoppages. But in 1999, with inflation tamed, there were only 17 comparable large-scale work stoppages.

Source: George Melloan, "Whatever Happened to the Labor Movement?" Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2001.

For WSJ text (requires interactive subscription)


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