When you see phrases like "the long decline of the American worker," it's easy to brush it off as hyperbole, but new numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest otherwise. Thanks in part to union-busting laws going into effect in Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere in the Midwest, union membership in the United States declined by 400,000 last year to 14.3 million. That brings the percentage of American workers in unions down to 11.3 percent, a solid drop from 11.8 percent where it was in 2011. Research from Rutgers economists Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin suggest that haven't been this popular since 1916, when 11.2 percent of Americans were in unions. That's around the same time that we started shipping troops to Europe to fight World War I, and the Ford Model T was the hottest car on the roads.
This is no accident. As workers are being stripped of their collective bargaining rights across the Midwest, major manufacturers are moving their factories to nonunion states. And according the new Labor Department statistics manufacturing is the sector that's seeing union membership fall the fastest. That and local government. The declining union membership doesn't have anything to do with a dwindling number of jobs, either. Employment in the U.S. actually rose by 2.4 million in 2012. And the unions say that it's not their fault, either. "It's not a simple story that we don't have our act together," AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs told The New York Times. "Our labor laws do not favor unions organizing. It would be one thing to say we're bellyaching, but the Republican Party is really being vindictive against unions, and employers campaign very hard against workers unionizing."
The Republicans aren't the only ones. Walmart and a number of fast food restaurants have been cracking down on union activity lately -- we realize it's possible that Republicans run these companies but who knows -- so much so that the unions started sending the labor movement to their doorsteps. The Black Friday protests at Walmarts around the country is a highlight of those efforts. As they rally to grow their ranks and hopefully turn the decline in union membership around, labor activists might not always have the law on their side, but they do have the numbers, at least from the workers' point of view. The average union worker made $943 a week, while the average nonunion worker made just $742. That's over 20 percent less.
As some people have pointed out, though, this new low should be a wake up call for unions. "To employers, it's going to look like the labor movement is ready for a knockout punch," said Clark University professor Gary Chaison told the Associated Press. "You can't be a movement and get smaller."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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