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Union membership in 2014 is half of what it was 30 years ago

The share of workers who are union members slipped again last year to the lowest share since 1983 -- the earliest year the Labor Department has available.

Union membership

The slip looks small, since the share fell from 11.3 to 11.1 percent, but the drop is still significant. It's the latest indicator that the waning influence of Big Labor in the American workforce is going to continue. So while both political parties grapple with what to do about stagnant wages and inequality, unions is looking less and less likely to be the answer.

In 2014, there were nearly 14.6 million union members in the US, up by only around 50,000 from 2013. Over that same period, the number of workers in the US grew by more than 2 million.

That decline in union membership rates has been entirely in the private sector — the total number of public sector union members has grown over the years, as this graphic from the Pew Research Center shows, while private-sector union membership has shrunk to a far greater degree. Indeed, 35.7 percent of public-sector workers today are members, compared to 6.6 percent for private-sector.

Pew public and private unions

(Pew Research Center)

What's dragging unions down? That's a topic of intense debate. The rise of right-to-work laws in some states is often blamed, along with laws that restrict union activities, like the 2011 Wisconsin law prohibiting many types of collective bargaining on the part of public-sector unions. One theory from economists Alan Krueger and Morris Kleiner links shrinking unions with the rise of occupational licensing. Meanwhile, Evan Soltas (writing at Bloomberg View last year) points to the rising dependence of labor upon capital.

Interestingly, Pew has found that public support of unions has held steady over the years. Still, organized labor is still slipping, and it's hard to see it regaining its former strength.

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