The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership last week. Like most of these reports in recent years, it was bleak and gloomy news for organized labor. Private sector union membership continued its downward plummet and now stands at a paltry 6.6%. This is down from 6.9% last year. Perhaps, even more troubling for labor unions was the decline in the public sector, normally an area of growth for unions. There, labor union membership dropped from 37% to 35.9%. One possible reason for that drop is that the cash-strapped federal, state, and local governments have slashed government jobs under tight budget crunches.
Many reasons have been postulated as to why labor unions keep losing their share of the private workforce. Unions, of course, point to an “assault” on organized labor by a combination of business groups, Republican politicians, and, even us management-side labor attorneys. Those groups respond that the reason is labor union’s failure to adapt their messages and ideology to a changing workforce. Many employers also argue that unions are simply a function of a bygone era.
Either way, this much is clear from the data: organized labor continues to lose its market share. The most troubling statistics buried in the BLS data is not necessarily the “6.6%” number, as alarming as that is. Rather, it is the demographic challenge that labor faces with younger workers. Amongst workers 16 to 24 years old, the unionization rates stands at an abysmally low 4.2%. For workers 25 to 34, the number is only 9.5%. Contrast this with workers in the 55 to 64 age bracket, where the number is 14.9%. If the unionization rate was 14.9% across the board, unions would feel much better about their positions.
In my mind, the lack of an appeal to younger workers is what’s driving labor’s decline. And should we be surprised? Think about the typical 25 year old worker now. This worker is likely very mobile and will switch jobs many times throughout his career. The worker is also very individualistic. If he or she is unhappy with their job, they expect to be able to march right into the boss’s office and talk about it. If he or she discovered that everyone was compensated in the same way, no matter their work performance, they would probably be offended. What does a labor union, as currently constituted, really have to offer to this person?
Of course, it’s not that younger workers all love their jobs. In fact talk to most generation Y workers and you are likely to hear them complain and complain about their jobs – usually quite passionately (and in a way that tends to offend their older co-workers). The problem is that labor unions are not finding attractive solutions to address these complaints. What if, instead of bargaining over outdated seniority rules that nobody cares about, a labor union fought hard to have employers help their younger workers with student loan payments? Who knows if it would really work, but it’s obvious what isn’t working – the current union strategy.
Until labor unions figure out a way to solve this deep and systemic problem with younger workers, the 6.6% number is only headed in one direction.