Virtually Unreported: Unionized Percentage of Workforce Is at an Over 100-Year Low

January 27th, 2015 10:02 PM

On Friday, Melissa Quinn at the Daily Signal, after the release of the government's "Union Members -- 2014" report, uniquely observed that the unionized percentage of the public- and private sector nonagricultural wage and salary U.S. workforce had reached "its lowest rate in 100 years." From what I can tell in web and news searches, despite the fact that virtually any 100-year record is ordinarily considered newsworthy, no major establishment press outlet has reported what Quinn found.

The report from Uncle Sam's Bureau of Labor Statisics claims that 1983 is "the first year for which comparable union data are available." Perhaps, but there is data available going back much further, and it has been used occasionally in previous media reports. That data also indicates that private-sector union membership is at its lowest point since the turn of the century — from the 19th to the 20th century, that is.

It appears that much the establishment press has long believed that there is no prior history at all before 1983, based on this excerpt from an Associated Press story in 2003:

Report says union membership at its lowest level since 1983
The (Schenectady, New York) Daily Gazette; February 26, 2003


It's a little late to be citing press ignorance or bias from 12 years ago, but it should have been obvious to the paper's headline writer, the AP and reporter Leigh Strope that if the membership percentage had consistently dropped over 20 years, 2003's percentage had to be the worst in far more than 20 years. The 13.2 percent reported for 2003 was arguably the lowest such result since 1930, i.e., 73 years (based on a discussion I had on Tuesday with someone in the technical area at BLS, the 13.3 percent seen at the link agrees with figures, however not fully comparable, BLS has for that year).

The New York Times and reporter Steven Greenhouse thought it was acceptable to cite even older data two years ago:

Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%

The long decline in the number of American workers belonging to labor unions accelerated sharply last year, according to data reported on Wednesday, sending the unionization rate to its lowest level in close to a century.

... The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the bureau found in its annual report on union membership. That brought unionization to its lowest level since 1916, when it was 11.2 percent, according to a study by two Rutgers economists, Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin.

The January 2013 Times coverage dealt with the 2012 "Union Members" report from the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Quinn's 100-year citation at the Daily Signal in covering the BLS's 2014 members report is supported at the following table contained in a report published by Rutgers economist Troy found at the National Bureau of Economic Research:


As seen at the red line above, the last time overall union membership was lower than 11.1 percent of the nonagricultural labor force was 1910, 104 years before the year on which BLS has just reported.

Perhaps more significantly, given that public-sector union membership was very, very low until well after World War II — Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was among those who ardently opposed them — the recently reported private-sector union membership percentage of 6.6 percent is lower than any percentage seen in Troy's table since 1900 (green line above). Private-sector union membership has declined from 7.6 percent to 6.6 percent during the first six years of Barack Obama's presidency.

As I noted late last week when I posted on the Associated Press's coverage of this year's union members report, the AP's Tom Raum only wrote rather nonchalantly that "union membership in the United States is down slightly." He failed to make any reference to the labor movement's long-term overall and private-sector declines.

I wonder if that might have anything to do with the fact that most of AP's employees are members of the extraordinarily militant News Media Guild?

Cross-posted at