NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Economy Presents New Woes For Labor Unions

January 16, 2001

Slower economic growth will further erode the strength of labor unions, experts predict, as lay-offs thin the ranks of dues-paying union members.

Moreover, unions probably won't be able to replace those lost members when the economy strengthens. "It's not as if unions gain during good times and lose during bad ones," says Clark University labor expert Gary Chaison. "They lose during prosperity and they lose during recession."

  • In 1999, the percentage of the nation's work force belonging to a union remained at 13.9 percent -- the same as the year before and the lowest level on record since 1977.
  • In 1983, unions represented 27.8 percent of the country's manufacturing workers and 27.5 percent of its construction employees.
  • By 1999, union representation in those sectors had fallen to 15.6 percent and 19.1 percent, respectively.
  • The only sector of the economy where unions gained clout was in the public sector -- where union representation inched up to 37.3 percent in 1999, from 36.7 percent in 1983.

The first workers laid off in an economic downturn typically come from union strongholds in manufacturing -- particularly its automotive sector. Moreover, union officials admit, many workers shun organizing campaigns during hard times.

Unions also worry that a Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Board might reverse several decisions that made it easier for them to organize workers. And a GOP-held Congress could roll back many of the union-friendly regulations issued by the Clinton administration.

Source: Yochi J. Dreazen, "Slower Growth Threatens Labor Unions," Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2001.

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