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Union Membership Remained Steady in 2013, But Conservative Attacks Threaten to Weaken Organized Labor

United Auto Workers Local 174 President John Zimmick sits at the bar at the union hall in Romulus, Michigan, March 22, 2013.

Read the full column (CAP Action)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released data today showing that the national union membership rate held steady at 11.3 percent in 2013. The private-sector unionization rate rose slightly, from 6.6 percent in 2012 to 6.7 percent in 2013. And while public-sector unionization rates have held steady for decades, they fell from 37 percent in 2011 to 35.3 percent in 2013, due in part to state-level efforts to weaken collective bargaining laws. It is good news that union membership rates did not fall in 2013, but over the past 40 years, there has been a long and steady decline in union membership—which should be worrisome to all Americans, as unions are vital for a strong middle class.

Many factors have contributed to declining union membership rates. Yet one factor that is increasingly important to the fate of unions is government obstruction of the right of workers to freely associate and collectively bargain in unions.

Federal law guarantees the right of workers to organize in the private sector, but the protections afforded are inadequate at best. Moreover, even these weak protections are opposed by many conservatives, who have been waging a war on the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB—the government agency with exclusive jurisdiction to protect the right of both union and nonunion workers to join together to call for better treatment from their employers. Last summer, Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to stop the board from functioning by blocking a bipartisan panel of nominees to fill all five board seats.

Read the full column (CAP Action)