A generation ago, more than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce belonged to a union. Today, that number is about 10 percent and only about 6 percent of private-sector employees. 

Unions were once an outlet for workers to leverage collective bargaining to fight for fair wages, reasonable work accommodations, and other benefits. Those needs still exist in the workplace, but there are far fewer unions to fight for them. Why has union membership declined so quickly? And what does that decline mean for workers? 

The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, analyzed the decline of private-sector union membership in a recent report. The group’s analysis points to two main factors to explain the change — a changing economy and shifting political power.

A Changing Economy

When union membership reached its peak in the 1930s and 40s, America was primarily a manufacturing economy. Workers in factories of all shapes and sizes felt like they were part of something larger than themselves and organized to make their voices heard among management and other stakeholders.

Today’s economy looks much different. Many of those manufacturing jobs have been automated or moved to other countries, and many Americans now work white-collar jobs instead of blue-collar ones. 

Have you ever heard of a union for office workers? Probably not, because they don’t fit the mold of what we traditionally think of as a union. The working conditions are far less physically taxing, and most jobs come with benefits like health insurance like paid time off. 

Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke are calling for an increase in white-collar union membership to fight for things like paid family leave, but it remains unclear what that effort will look like moving forward.

The rise of the gig economy has also impacted union participation. Workers for companies like Uber and Taskrabbit are independent contractors and do not have any collective bargaining power. Again, there are calls for this to change politically, but no concrete plans have emerged thus far.

Shifting Political Power

As the economy changed and union membership decreased, the political power unions had also declined. Fewer union members overall meant less union representation in Congress. There was a time when winning a union’s endorsement could be a huge boost for a candidate, but that’s far less likely today.

Much like today’s workers are highly educated, so too are today’s politicians. Nearly all members of Congress have a bachelor’s degree, with most holding an advanced degree. Their experiences are very different than someone who is part of a blue-collar labor union.

This results in a vicious cycle — less that union members’ voices are represented in Congress, the less likely it is that anyone will fight to keep unions alive. Less support for unions will continue to erode the power existing unions have and make it less likely that unionization will come to other sectors of the economy.  

The Brookings report notes several alternative models that have worked in other countries and could be successful in the U.S. 

Wage boards are comprised of workers from different companies in the same industry and work to set minimum wage levels for different types of work. This model has been successful at raising wages for low and middle-income jobs in Australia.

Sectoral bargaining is another successful model that involves participation from union representatives, employees, and government officials. These groups work together to set minimum wages and other benefits across an entire sector, which leads to less opposition from individual employers. This model is used across Europe.

However, the Brookings authors note that the current political and economic situation in the U.S. makes it unlikely that any of these reforms will come our way anytime soon. Unless something changes, union membership and influence will likely continue to decline.

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