Private sector membership in labor unions on the decline

June 07, 1999

ATHENS, Ohio -- Today's labor unions aren't what they were just a decade ago, according to a recently published analysis of big labor in America. The percentage of people working in the private sector who belong to a labor union is about what it was in the 1920s, and today's union leaders are more educated, more politically savvy and sometimes more militant than leaders of the past. At the same time, research suggests union strength is actually growing among government workers.

"There's a new generation of leaders running the American labor unions, and they're more aggressive, more militant," says Richard Vedder, co-author of the analysis and an Ohio University economist. "Public support for labor has declined and unions are having a difficult time getting Washington (D.C.) to support them. Some union leaders feel they're losing clout and power because people don't know about them any more."

The decline in private sector union membership is caused in part by a move away from heavy manufacturing into other endeavors, a changing work environment, more educated workforce and a global economy.

And although there seems to have been a recent increase in union strike activity, Vedder says it doesn't compare to activity 20 or 30 years ago and may be a "last gasp" for labor unions.

"There's been a little upsurge in strike activity in the last two years, but if your compare the volume of strike activity today with the volume in 1950s, you'll find it's much lower," says Vedder, distinguished professor of economics. The work was co-authored by Lowell Gallaway, also a distinguished professor of economics, and published in the latest issue of the journal Critical Review.

The research suggests that while labor unions still wield influence in the private sector, employees seem to be less interested in joining.

"There was a time when workers would go to work in a company plant in a town that offered few other employment options. If the employer gave you a bad deal, you had a tough time. A union made some sense as a way of protecting workers against a monopoly on the employers' part," Vedder says. "But those company towns are a thing of the past. These days, most people can jump in a car and go 50 or 75 miles to get another job. Unions aren't as needed as they used to be."

The federal government now offers workers some of the protections only labor unions could achieve in the past, the researchers say. And an increase in worker-owned companies, such as Microsoft and many Internet companies, has given workers a stake in their employer's success.

"People don't see the adversarial relationship between employer and employee that they used to," Vedder says. "When you go into a nice, comfortable office, work a 7- or 8-hour day, have a nice cafeteria, it's hard to work up any hard feelings about your employer."

Vedder and Gallaway also studied union membership among public employees, and found a different trend than what they observed in the private sector.

"About half of union members today work for the government, whereas about 50 years ago, it was less than 10 percent," Vedder says. "The most powerful union in the country is the National Education Association."

Union membership also has increased among school bus drivers, secretarial and clerical employees, maintenance workers and other government employees, Gallaway says.

"Government enterprises, generally speaking, don't have competition for what they do," Gallaway says. "So there is, in a sense, no bottom-line profit constraint that government employers have to face."

Public employee unions lobby legislatures for funding increases for wages and other employee needs, Gallaway says, using their block-voting power as a prize for those legislators who vote in favor of these increases.

"As government spending grows, and it has been growing, it offers opportunities for unions to capture for their members a part of that increase in spending," Gallaway says.

Vedder and Gallaway, who hold appointments in the College of Arts and Sciences at Ohio University, are authors of "Out of Work: Government and Unemployment in Twentieth-Century America."
Contacts: Richard Vedder, 740-593-0142;; Lowell Gallaway, 740-593-2036

Attention editors, reporters: The journal article on which this story is based is available by calling Kelli Whitlock at 740-593-2868 or Danielle Harley at 740-593-0946.

Ohio University

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