Photo: Getty

America is suffering from four decades of rising economic inequality. A prime driver of that inequality is the decline of union power in our country. Unfortunately, union membership is still moving in the wrong direction. Do not be misled: this is awful.

Each year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues a report on union membership in America. This is the report that tells us whether union membership is moving up or down. New numbers, out today, are not encouraging: “The union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions—was 10.5 percent in 2018, down by 0.2 percentage point from 2017... In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.” (Including those who were represented by, but not members of, unions raises the percentage slightly to 11.7% of the work force, still a 0.2% decline from 2017.) In the private sector, union representation fell slightly to a meager 7.2% of workers; in the public sector, which has been the stronghold of unions in America, the decline in union representation was sharper, down 0.7% to 37.2% of the work force—though it is too early to tell whether that decline is attributable to the recent Supreme Court Janus ruling, which is certain to erode public union membership over the long term.

These annual fractional declines in union membership have, with minor fluctuations, been going on for decades. And decades of small declines equal a big decline. If barely more than a tenth of working people are in unions, that means that the power of labor in general is weak; that means the power of the ownership class is correspondingly stronger; and that means that wealth accumulates at the very top of the income spectrum. That is what has been happening in America since the Reagan era, and that is why we are so fucking economically unequal now that people have lost so much faith in our public institutions that a man like Donald Trump can be elected president. Union membership matters because inequality is eating America alive, and nothing battles inequality as well as strong organized labor does.

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Graphic: EPI

A fraction of a percent decline in union membership each year may not seem very big. But the point is that it is vital that union density in this country be going up. If it does not begin to go up in a meaningful way very soon, we are fucked. To say, “Well, times are hard for organized labor, and it only went down a little bit, so we did pretty good” is to look at the issue through the wrong lens. What we need to say is, “It is absolutely essential that union density rise in America. The fact that it has instead declined is devastating, and we must correct this as soon as possible.”

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Every single year that union density goes down, not up, is a failure for unions in America. I want this sentence painted on the side of AFL-CIO headquarters.

This is an existential issue for organized labor. Anyone in a union leadership position in 2019 must recognize the importance of the fact that union membership must go up, not down. All of us—including our company, GMG, which is unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East—must prioritize an increase in union density, and be quick to acknowledge the fact that we are in fact still seeing decreases. Which is very bad.

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But that acknowledgement is not forthcoming. Here is how AFSCME, a major public employee union, framed today’s numbers in a press release:

New Union Membership Data Reveal Anti-Worker Assault Is Failing

Bureau of Labor Statistics Update Shows Public Sector Unions Holding Strong

[...] Despite a multimillion-dollar, decades-long war waged by special interests on public sector workers’ right to join together for a better life—culminating in Janus, which was meant to “defund and defang” unions—official statistics show 2018 public sector membership held strong at 7,167,000, a marginal 0.5 percent decline, with total U.S. union membership at 14,721,000 million. Public service unions have all seen more membership joins than drops since the decision.

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Here is the press release from the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees, of which our own union is a part:

Professional Union Membership Rose in 2018

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2019—Professional union membership grew to 6.18 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual report on union membership released today. This is an increase of approximately 28,000 professional union members from 2017.

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The DPE did not include in their press release the fact that the percentage of professional workers in America who are unionized actually declined in the past year.

That percentage—union density—is what actually matters in the grand scheme of things. It is misleading bordering on dishonest to send out press releases spinning a decline in union density as good news for unions. It is not. It is bad news. The impulse to put a positive face on things is understandable, but it is counterproductive, because it conceals the true immensity of the mountain that organized labor has to climb. Both AFSCME and the AFL-CIO are extremely important organizations doing work that is extremely important to the future of America. I want their work to succeed. But we can’t get anywhere if we can’t even acknowledge that we are, right now, failing to do what we need to do: INCREASE UNION DENSITY IN AMERICA IN ORDER TO REDUCE INEQUALITY BEFORE EVERYTHING FUCKING CRUMBLES AROUND US.

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The first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem.