By the end of last year, barely one in 10 U.S. manufacturing workers belonged to a union or was represented by one. Thirty years ago, that number was one in three.
Those figures come from the government’s Current Population Survey. The survey releases union membership data monthly, and the Labor Department is to publish an annual report summarizing its findings for 2012 this month.
Sherk, the Heritage Foundation researcher, got a jump on that report by compiling the government’s monthly statistics himself. His calculations, based on 11 months of data, show that non-unionized manufacturing employment grew by about 700,000 net jobs from 2010 through 2012, a 6 percent increase. Unionized manufacturing jobs declined by 60,000, or about 4 percent. (Those numbers differ slightly from the Labor Department’s calculation of overall manufacturing job growth because they are drawn from different economic surveys.)
A majority of union jobs today are government jobs — and those jobs, too, have taken a beating following the recession. There were nearly 230,000 fewer public-sector union workers in America in 2012 than there were in 2011, Sherk calculated from the Current Population Survey data.
Two factors are driving that decline, Sherk and union leaders agree. States and local governments have laid off workers in recent years to fill budget shortfalls caused by the recession and weak recovery. Public employment is down by more than 600,000 jobs since mid-2009.
Also, some governors have mounted aggressive campaigns to limit collective bargaining for public employees. Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker stirred controversy by championing and signing such a law in 2011, saw the nation’s second-largest percent decline in public union membership in 2012.
The data don’t make clear what, exactly, is driving the decline in union manufacturing jobs even as the industry expands hiring. It does not appear to be regional: The states with the fastest post-recession factory job growth include a mix of relative union strongholds, such as Washington state, and lightly unionized states such as South Carolina. They also include Indiana and Michigan, where Republican governors recently signed right-to-work laws.
It’s possible that recent manufacturing job creation was concentrated among smaller firms, which are less likely to be unionized.
Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former Obama adviser, theorizes that big manufacturing firms, which are more likely to employ union workers, can afford to invest in new automated equipment to help fill their demand. That would leave smaller firms to do the bulk of the industry hiring.
“Robots don’t join unions,” Bernstein said, “and smaller shops aren’t buying robots.”