Last month the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its annual report on union membership. In 2016 14.6 million U.S. employees were union members -- a drop to 10 percent of the workforce.
It spells bad news for organized labor. While public-sector union membership remained steady at 34.4 percent, only 6.4 percent of private-sector employees are members of a labor union—down from one-third of workers in the 1950s. In states like South Carolina, Texas, and Utah, union membership dips well below five percent of the workforce.
Labor leaders face an inconvenient truth. Despite spending millions of dollars on campaigns like the “Fight for $15 and a Union,” while receiving unprecedented help from a labor-friendly Obama administration, unions have seen little return on investment in their membership rolls.
Take the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the organizer of “$15 and a Union”—the push for a $15 minimum wage and unionized fast-food sector.
According to the SEIU’s most recent filing with the Labor Department, the union spent at least $20 million on the Fight for $15 in 2015. This increases the total to roughly $70 million since the campaign began in 2012.
Yet, despite seven-figure public relations retainers, the SEIU’s membership has dipped in recent years: The SEIU claimed 1,921,786 union members in 2011, the year prior to the start of the Fight for $15—almost 34,000 more employees than it had in 2015. The union’s 2016 filing will likely continue the downward trend.
Some labor leaders see the writing on the wall. As former SEIU President Andy Stern put it, “The union can’t just keep transferring revenue it makes from bargaining contracts to pay for its social justice work because collective bargaining is shrinking.” If unions don’t find new ways to recruit members, Stern says, “then you can invite me to the funeral.”
The Obama administration did its best to stem the tide. As a recent Wall Street Journal editorial rightly points out, presidential appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the federal agency governing U.S. labor law—churned out dozens of rulings to bolster union power. With its 2011 "Specialty Healthcare" decision, the NLRB enabled labor unions to gerrymander a minority share of an employer’s workforce into so-called “micro-unions.” More recently, the agency ruled that teaching assistants at Columbia University are employees and therefore have the right to unionize—paving the way for unionized colleges and universities around the country.
But employees continue to resist labor organizers. At Harvard University, the United Auto Workers (UAW)—which has aimed to unionize teaching assistants since early last year—recently lost a certification election despite using “extremely aggressive” tactics.
At the same time, a majority of U.S. states have now passed right-to-work laws, prohibiting union membership as a condition of employment. Missouri recently joined a list of 27 other states, while New Hampshire could pass similar legislation in the near future.
Employees just don’t see the same need for union representation as they did in the early 20th century—when rapid industrialization turned workplace safety into a life-or-death concern.
A Rasmussen poll conducted before the election shows that only 20 percent of Americans see labor leaders as “do[ing] a good job representing union members.” Even among current or former union members, only 25 percent have a favorable view of union leadership.
President Trump and a Republican Congress should address working class concerns. Union members feel abandoned not only by Wall Street and the Washington establishment, but also by those who claim to represent their professional interests.
Proposals like the Employee Rights Act—a federal bill that amassed 170 co-sponsors in the 114th Congress—can democratize the workplace through secret ballot union elections, mandatory recertification votes, and other pro-employee reforms.
A National Right to Work Act would similarly—albeit less comprehensively—transfer power from labor leaders to blue-collar employees.
Resistance can be expected. Despite the president’s “listening session” with building trades unions this week, the SEIU and other unions excluded from the meeting are gearing up for a four-year war with the White House. In current SEIU President Mary Kay Henry’s words: “We are battening down the hatches.”
President Trump and Congress should return the favor—by standing up to Big Labor.
Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that fights for transparency and accountability in America's labor movement.