Unionization rate fell in 2010

The total number of unionized workers in the United States fell about 600,000 in 2010, according to data released yesterday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The drop in membership lowered the overall unionization rate from 12.3 percent of all workers in 2009, to 11.9 percent last year. In the private sector, the unionization rate is down to 6.9 percent, from just under 25 percent in the early 1970s.

The immediate cause of the drop in union membership was the tough economy since 2008. Overall employment was still falling between 2009 and 2010 (down about 400,000, according to the BLS numbers) and unionized employment fell even more (down about 600,000). Local governments –struggling with recession-related declines in revenues– alone saw a decline of about 200,000 union jobs. (While the published data don’t break out local government employment, these job losses were likely concentrated among public school teachers.)

But, the biggest problem facing organized labor remains a legal structure that makes it very difficult for private-sector workers to form a union and negotiate a first contract. Over the last 40 years, unionization rates have remained fairly solid in the public sector, where labor law is more balanced and employer-opposition is more muted. The big declines in unionization have occured in the private sector, where labor law gives employers wide scope for beating back organizing campaigns. (And, it isn’t just the decline of manufacturing that is driving down unionization. Unionization rates in services in the private sector have followed the same downward trajectory as manufacturing.)

CEPR Senior Research Associate Ben Zipperer has a good write-up of yesterday’s numbers. The Associated Press and the New York Times both covered CEPR’s take.

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