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The proportion of U.S. workers covered by a union contract dropped to a new low of 12 percent in 2016, mainly reflecting declines in the heavily unionized government sector, Labor Department figures showed Jan. 26.
Unionization—or the share of workers represented by a union, regardless of whether they are union members—has decreased sharply from 23.3 percent in 1983, as technology has changed and the economy has shifted further toward service industries and away from manufacturing and other goods production. The 12 percent is a record low since 1983, the earlier year for which comparable union data is available.
About 16.27 million workers were covered by a labor agreement last year, 140,000 fewer than the prior year, even though the economy added nearly 2.4 million jobs in 2016, according to a Bloomberg BNA analysis of the figures.
The decline in union membership was even more pronounced, with the number of workers who belong to unions falling by about 236,700, to 14.55 million. The portion of the private-sector workforce that belongs to a union decreased to 6.4 percent, from 6.7 percent.
Most of organized labor’s long-term losses are the result of technological and other changes in the economy that have affected the types of jobs being performed, Barry T. Hirsch, a Georgia State University professor of economics who has studied labor unions and wages, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 26.
“Labor-saving technology particularly hit hard production workers, who are more likely to be unionized,” Hirsch said. “And as new businesses arise, they’re almost always nonunion and stay nonunion, so you’ve just had this decline in unionization throughout the economy.”
Other factors include the general opposition of management to unions and the enactment of right-to-work laws by more states, he said.
“With the way the deck is currently stacked, it’s a miracle that brave workers continue to find new ways to organize and that today’s numbers aren’t even worse,” Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, said in a tweet. Organized labor is “stronger than ever,” Trumka said, citing the labor federation’s success in defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Donald Trump this week withdrew the U.S. from the multi-nation trade deal.
AFL-CIO officials contacted by Bloomberg BNA didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.
Private-sector unionization has recovered since 2009-2012, when the number of workers covered by labor contracts fell below those in the public sector, which was insulated from heavy job losses during the 2007-2009 recession but later contracted due to budget cuts. In 2016, 8.44 million union-represented workers were employed by businesses and 7.83 million by government.
As a proportion of the workforce, unionization of public-sector employees fell to 37.9 percent last year from 39 percent in 2015, with declines occurring at each level of government, while private industry unionization edged down to 7.3 percent from 7.4 percent.
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