Union Membership Attrition

By Chaison, Gary | Monthly Labor Review, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Union Membership Attrition


Chaison, Gary, Monthly Labor Review


In studies of the state of the labor unions, researchers often estimate union membership attrition--that is, the annual loss in union members caused by employment shifts. For unions to have net growth in the number of members, the losses must be offset by new union members, which are gotten through organizing. (1) This research summary examines the validity of common assumptions about membership attrition by measuring union membership changes in expanding and declining industries as well as the number of new members needed by the unions each year for either no change or an increase in union density of 1 percentage point. Union density, a widely used measure of union organization and influence, is calculated as the annual percentage of employed wage and salary workers who are union members. (2)

Union membership change in growing and declining industries

A 1999 study by the AFL-CIO revealed that union membership was concentrated in declining industries and there were few new members in expanding industries. Over a 14-year period (1984-97), union members held 80 percent of the jobs lost in major declining industries, but gained only 5 percent of the new jobs in the fastest growing industries.

In other words, where jobs were lost on net they were disproportionately union members' jobs, and where jobs were gained they were disproportionately nonunion jobs. Employment shifts were not adding to the unions' membership rolls, but rather decreasing them significantly. (3)

This relationship is examined with updated union membership data derived from the Current Population Survey (CPS), in which respondents were asked if they belonged to or were represented by unions or employee associations. (4) The industries used in the calculations here were selected from the CPS data on the basis of their rankings over time adding or losing jobs. Table 1, therefore, shows union membership changes in the 10 industry classifications that had the greatest employment increases over a recent 5-year period: 2003 to 2008. (5) Table 2 shows changes in membership in the 10 industry classifications that were declining the most during those years.

In the 10 industries with the greatest employment growth, 19 percent of new jobs were held by union members. (6) Among the industry classifications with the greatest decline, 24 percent of the jobs lost belonged to union members. These results are certainly not as dramatic as those uncovered by the AFL-CIO study, but they do enable us to conclude that union members held a larger proportion of jobs in the fastest declining industries than in the fastest growing industries. Consequently, as some industries expand over time and others contract, union membership declines. (7)

Unchanged and minimally changing private sector union density

Analyses of union membership growth or decline usually estimate the number of new members that unions would have to gain for private sector union density to remain unchanged from one year to another. This is done to illustrate how unions must "run fast" to simply remain in place--that is, how many new members unions need to acquire through organizing efforts to offset the outflow of members. For example, Richard B. Freeman calculated the annual loss in private union membership and concluded that "unions, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass for whom 'it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,' must organize large numbers of workers each year to maintain private sector density." (8)

This report also estimates the number of union members needed to increase private sector union density by a minimal amount--a single percentage point. This represents a very low rate of growth and can be used to show how many new members unions would need each year to reverse the decline in density by just a small, seemingly unremarkable proportion. This is a benchmark that has been utilized before. …

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