Economic Find: The Decline of Union Membership

Labor unions work to represent their members by fighting for higher wages and better benefits and settling grievances with their employers.

And the collective bargaining pays off.  In 2004, full-time workers in unions earned 28% more than nonunion workers and 81% of union workers had retirement benefits compared to 47% of their nonunion counterparts.

Despite the benefits, union membership has been declining since the 1940s, when it peaked at 35.5% (see chart below).  Some attribute the drop to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which diminished the power of unions to support each other in strikes and form new unions, while it emboldened employers to attack existing unions.  In fact, employers often go to extreme lengths to avoid unions, violating employees’ legal rights without legal punishment.  They fire pro-union workers and use the threat of plant closure and layoffs to defeat union efforts.

While unions have historically been disproportionately white and male, they are becoming increasingly diverse.  The gap in membership between men and women is closing and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, black workers were more likely to be union members (13.4 percent) than white workers (11.7 percent).


Percent of Workers in a Union

The Power of Labor in Decline


Based on the Field Guide to the US Economy. “Who Belongs to Unions?” and “Unions at Work.” 2.15 and 2.15: 35-36.



Revised and Updated by Member Economist Sue Holmberg

October 2011



Ali, Mazher et al. 2010. “State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom?” United for Fair Economy.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. January 21, 2011. Union Member Summary.

Noah, Timothy. 2010. “The Great Divergence.”