State-Level Policies Threaten to Further Weaken Unions

Ben Fairchild of Decatur, Indiana, displays a sign outside of the Statehouse in Indianapolis on January 4, 2012.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics released data today showing that the national union membership rate dropped to 11.3 percent in 2012—a net decline of 0.5 percentage points from 2011. The private-sector unionization rate continued its steady decline, dropping to 6.6 percent from 6.9 percent in 2011. And in a new and troubling—though expected—trend, the union membership drop in the public sector was more pronounced: Its rate dropped to 35.9 percent from 37 percent in 2011. The long and steady decline in union membership is worrisome, as unions are vital for a strong middle class. (see Figure 1)

State-level policy has recently become increasingly important to the fate of unions. States such as Indiana and Michigan passed “right-to-work” laws in 2012 that undermine the strength of unions by requiring them to provide services for which they are not compensated, whileWisconsin passed a law in 2011 that repealed collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public-sector workers. These policy choices, as well as similar ones made in the past, can significantly impact unionization rates, and they help explain the wide variation in unionization among states. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics data released today, along with data from an online database managed by economists Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, we can see how trends in unionization have differed across states in recent years.

Read the full column (CAP Action)