Commentary

Union Membership Hits Record Low: Down to 10.7 Percent in 2016

Trey Kovacs
By Trey Kovacs | January 30, 2017 | 11:57 AM EST

SEIU Local 1 union members protest for an increase in the minimum wage, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual union membership report. As has been the case for decades, the union membership rate—the portion of public and private-sector workers who are union members—declined, this time to the lowest point since the government began keeping track.

In 2015 union membership was 11.1 percent, and dropped to 10.7 percent in 2016, which amounts to a loss of 240,000 union members. For some perspective on the staggering losses unions have suffered, in 1983, the first year comparable data is available, labor unions had 17.7 million members. In 2016, there were only 14.6 million members. The hollowing out of union membership would be much worse if not for the public sector, where the membership rate is five times higher than in the private sector.

Why is union membership, especially in the private sector, on a continuous decline? In part, many labor unions, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have become appendages of the Democratic Party and reliant on government to ease union organizing rather than provide value to workers.

For example, the SEIU has spent tens of millions of dollars of members’ dues on politics in the past couple of election cycles with nearly all the contributions going to Democrats. Such political bias is a turnoff to many union members, a large minority of whom vote Republican, including in the most recent presidential election.

Additionally, if membership continued to fall during the Obama administration, which did everything in its power to ease union organizing at the expense of worker choice, then it is obvious that unions need to change their playbook on how to attract members. One solution is to spend more of members’ dues on activities that directly benefit workers, like training and education, rather than on politics and corporate campaigns.

But the SEIU and their ilk have chosen to double-down on politics and smear tactics instead of providing value to workers. Over the last several years, the SEIU has spent millions of dollars funding the “Fight for $15,” a union front group, and paying high-profile consulting firms like Berlin Rosen to attack companies they wish to organize. So, instead of organizing with the intent of gaining worker support, the SEIU applies public pressure and attempts to intimidate employers into signing card-check neutrality agreements, which takes away workers’ right to a secret-ballot election.

Politically-minded unions should heed the advice of one of their own, United Auto Workers Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel:

“This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right-to-work hurts unions. … To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong,’ versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”

Trey Kovacs is a policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public policy non-profit group in Washington, D.C.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.