The Decline of Labor Unions

In 2014, the union membership rate was a mere 11 percent in the U.S. This is down 0.2 percent from 2013, which does not seem like a notable decline. However, this is a 98-year low in America. To get some idea of this immense drop in union membership, the union membership rate was 20 percent in 1983 and 28 percent in 1954, according to Cornell University.

Labor unions are vital to the nation’s success. President Eisenhower himself once even said, “Labor is the United States. The men and women, who with their minds, their hearts and hands, create the wealth that is shared in this country–they are America.”

Policies against unions

However, government and policy have victimized unions for decades. The Taft Hartley Act of 1947 expanded employer rights at the expense of union rights. Some of the clauses prohibited closed shop for unions, secondary boycotts, and federal employee strikes. It was even referred to as the “slave labor” act by its opponents.

In 1978, labor unions put together a bill to strengthen the National Labor Relations Board. Big business significantly outspent labor efforts, ensuring that this bill did not pass.

In 1981, President Reagan dismissed 3,000 striking workers of the traffic controllers union. Businesses and Corporations began to hire strike breakers, effectively posing a viable threat to any union that dared to go on strike. There were 371 strikes in 1970; there were only 11 in 2010.

According to CNN, “For the sake of our economic and political future, however, America would be better off if we had more strikes.”

Labor Unions are essential to democracy and equality

The graph shows the rise of the Gini coefficient, which correlates with the rise in inequality. -Photo By Wushi-En [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The graph shows the rise of the Gini coefficient, which correlates with the rise in inequality.
-Photo By Wushi-En [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

We need labor unions in the U.S. for a variety of reasons. First, the decline in unionization is correlated to the increase in income inequality. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, about half of the increase in the Gini coefficient–a measure of inequality–and the significant rise in incomes of the top 10 percent can be explained by the decline in unionization. Historically, times of high union membership were also times of low inequality.

Second, unions provide a checks and balances system of sorts to the corporate world. Labor unions increase worker moral, protect basic worker rights, and are essentially the epitome of the middle class. Although there is corruption in some unions, there is also corruption in the corporate world. Even a flawed union can balance out a flawed corporation.

Unchecked corporations consume money and power, as presented in the quote from Wealth vs. Work below.

The fact is, however, people at the top of the pyramid are continuously redistributing wealth from the common people to their own pockets (this is the history of human kind), allying themselves with those who run the political system, writing self-serving rules concerning investments, credit, insurance, and banking. Even when the day of reckoning comes, and markets tank, the people in charge of corporate capitalism and finance manage to recover or get rescued by the system…

[In the 2008/2009 Recession], it was the ordinary worker who paid the bill. Money was redistributed from the bottom of the pyramid to the top…The rest of the world saw a system of government, which was supposed to regulate, monitor and hold people accountable, that allowed the robber barons of the twenty first century complete immunity and placed the rest of the world in jeopardy.”
-Wealth vs. Work: How 1% Victimizes 99%. pp. 138-139. Allan Ornstein

According to the New York Times, the decline in labor unions could help explain why CEOs of large corporations earned, on average, “20 times as much as the typical worker in 1965, and 296 times as much in 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute.”

In the words of Elaine Bernard of Harvard University in the piece Why Unions Matter, “Because we have not yet succeeded in extending democracy to the workplace, democracy and civil society themselves are threatened.”


5 thoughts on “The Decline of Labor Unions

  1. peacevisionaryriel Ky

    What about a labor union for ESL teachers? Sometimes I think that we are the most exploited, underpaid, highly educated labor force there is. I’ve had 25 years experience in this field, and nothing to show for it for my retirement. So I’m going into real estate, and hopefully my hard work will pay off. Hard-working teachers in the ESL field are lucky to get work, and doubly blessed if they can get enough hours to have health insurance. Most of us work on short-term contracts, which may or may not be renewed, depending on the number of students. Staff always relies on us to make programs work, even if they are slapped together and not well thought out. Only the teachers who work hard endure in this field because you will always be called upon to do quite a bit of additional unpaid work, giving make-up tests, doing administrative tasks, etc. And God forbid that you should fail to keep your students entertained, as the ESL field has largely degenerated into infotainment, and it is always a popularity contest with students. All that said, there is an abundance of materials freely available on the Internet to augment class instruction for the truly motivated, and it is sheer pleasure to work with students who have a strong drive to learn. I’ve had some outstanding classes over the years, which is why I’ve stayed in this field. And I enjoy learning from students from other countries, and learning about other cultures. But in the end, where does it leave me? Some good memories, some bad… but nothing to retire on.


  2. drtaxsacto

    The correlations here are laughable. Has the rise in inequality in incomes come from the decline in labor unions of from a significant increase in technology. The three classes that have benefitted most on income are stars (sports, music, other areas) – where the basis comes from the increased value of their services relative to non-stars; winners in new technologies (the big payoff for technological innovators) and the rising value of finance and law as professions. None of those have any relationship to the decline in unions. Look a bit at California and its huge changes in wealth distribution (get a map) and you will see that your thesis is just pure bunk. Concurrently, as the decline in industrial unions has occurred – which started in the 1960s, public employee unions have grown – so a good part of the total union membership has switched from industrial jobs to public sector jobs. Your correlation here is as specious as one which suggests that rain in Iowa affects the price of watermelons in Central America.


    1. allanornstein1 Post author

      I do agree that talent and luck are factors affecting the rise of inequality. An unprecedented amount of money flows to such “stars,” which is another factor highlighted in my book Wealth vs. Work. I can assure you that inequality is a complex issue, with many factors affecting it. It cannot be entirely explained by either your explanation or mine. However, I can assure you that the idea of inequality being linked to unionization declining is not a ridiculous thesis. There have been hundreds of studies done on the topic, one of which by the International Monetary fund (the link is provided below). Thank you for your valuable input on this blog, and for joining the ongoing discussion.


  3. Robert

    Labor needs to survive, indeed to thrive, for the good of the country, however, they are failing, not because the government will not protect them, but because they have been unable to provide a “product” that the majority of the workforcetwants to buy. They will continue to decline so long as they not recognize this fact and so long as they refuse to take steps to address it. They are in danger of see history pass them by and that would be tragic.



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