The Rise and Fall of Unionism in America

Unions are a persistent point of conflict in economic policy debates. Many observers argue that the economic difficulties faced by America’s middle class are at least partly attributable to the decline of unions. Others see unions as a detrimental force in the economy, and believe that they harm employers, the US economy, and ultimately workers themselves. Unions are portrayed as powerful and corrupting forces in US society, and dying institutions that are being squashed by all-powerful business interests.

How strong are unions? One way to answer that question is to look at union density, the ratio of unionized workers to total workers. The figure below depicts changes in union density across all US workers from 1880 and 2013. Data come from Klaus Walde and Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson.1

Union Density

The graph suggests that unionization developed slowly between the 1880s and the Great Depression. By the 1880s, struggles to unionize labor were heated and sometimes violent. Larger movements to advance unionism included the Knights of Labor, and later the American Federation of Labor. Through the Great Depression, more workers unionized under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. These latter two groups eventually merged to create the AFL-CIO.

Unionization increased dramatically with the institution of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which legally protected workers’ rights to organize unions, restricted businesses ability to interfere with or fire unionizing workers, and enabled compulsory union membership in organizations where unions had been established. Between World War II and the mid-1950s, union density peaked at around one-third of the work force. Union density began a secular decline after 1954, and is quickly approaching levels that prevailed before the passage of the NLRA.

The figure depicts the decline of union density, which is the proportion of workers in unions. This decline in density does not necessarily represent a decline in the absolute number of union jobs, but is more a reflection of a long-term faster growth in non-union jobs. However, after 1980, the absolute number of union jobs began to fall. In 1980, there were approximately 20 million union jobs, whereas there were about 14.5 million in 2013.2 This decline followed several changes, including the deinstitutionalization of regulations that benefitted unions (e.g., “right to work” legislation), employment declines in traditionally unionized sectors (e.g., automotive, utilities), and an increasingly cultural antipathy towards unionism.

Insofar as union membership is concerned, it is clear that the institution of unionism has declined considerably over the past several decades. Union jobs are less prevalent and decreasing in number. There are disagreements about whether or not the decline of unionism is a good or bad thing for workers and society-at-large, but it seems clear that this decline is taking place.

  1. Pre-1973 ata from Alejandro Donado and Klaus Walde (2012) “How Trade Unions Increase Welfare” Economic Journal 112(563): 990 – 1009. Set draws strongly from Richard B. Freeman (1998) “Spurts in Union Growth: Moments and Social Processes” in Michael D. Bordo, Claudia Goldin, and Eugene N. White (eds.) The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century University of Chicago Press. Post-1973 numbers from Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson “Union Membership, Coverage, Density, and Employment, Among All Wage and Salary Workers, 1973-2014”
  2. Donado and Walde (2012) Op. Cit.

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