Are Women the New Face of Organized Labor?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the question the Real Time Economics blog asked yesterday using a few Labor Day-related charts, showing that as men leave unions, women make up an increasingly large share of the labor movement. This means more female-friendly labor policies, including anti-discrimination clauses and efforts to close the pay gap.

I’ve examined this before in my piece “The Little Union That Could,” about the National Nurses Union, which is run by women and has a largely-female membership. It has added 20,000 members since 2009 and expects to grow more as the health care field continues to grow.  The Economist has called the nurses “the new auto workers” because of their growing strength and willingness to fight cuts.

But it might be a stretch to say that women will save the traditional labor movement.

Data suggests that it’s not that the number of female union members is skyrocketing; rather, women make up a larger percentage of the labor movement simply because men are dropping out so quickly.  In 1985, nearly one-quarter of working men were represented by unions, and now just 12.8 percent are, according to BLS data. Over the same time period, the percentage of women represented by unions fell to 11.7 percent, from 15.9 percent.

It’s true that the number of union members that are female is shrinking much less quickly than the number of union members who are male:

Number of  Workers Represented by Unions

Source: ATLAS, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Whether women surpass men in traditional union membership in the next decade will largely depend on the fate of different industries in America, and on the success or failure for traditional unions to organize in places far and wide, from hospitals to manufacturing plants to fast food chains.

Union organizing may soon be a thing of the past anyway. As Steven Greenhouse wrote in The New York Times this weekend, workers are increasingly finding non-traditional ways to bargain for rights. Creating a union is getting harder and harder, no matter your gender. But fighting for worker protections doesn’t have to be.