Analysis: Union membership fell in 2021 – and has fallen since the 1980s. No amount of turnover can change that

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The US Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership last week. It didn’t get much coverage in the press, because how many different ways can you tell the same old story?

There were 50,000 fewer union members in the private sector than in 2020, even as the economy added 4,225,000 new workers. In local government, a category that includes most public school employees, there were 75,000 fewer union members, although there were 180,000 additional employees.

This trend has continued uninterrupted since we kept these statistics. Since 1983, the US economy has added 48.1 million workers and unions have lost 3.7 million members.

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The one area where membership levels are stable over decades is in local government. But now even that is starting to sag. There are less than 4 million union members working for local governments for the first time since 1988.


Analysis: By the numbers: How teachers’ union membership has plummeted in a year of pandemic school closures and other upheavals

One would think that such tragic figures would lead to some introspection on the part of the unions. This is not the case.

“Today’s annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on union membership clearly shows that US labor laws are unquestionably being violated,” the AFL-CIO said in a press release.

Unsurprisingly, the union-backed Economic Policy Institute echoed this position. “The substantial level of union activity in 2021 (including organizing campaigns and strikes), together with polling data showing the large proportion of workers who would like a union in their workplace, demonstrates that workers want and appreciate the unions,” he said.

The idea that we should ignore the evidence of our own eyes in the service of what unions would like to be true has seeped into last year’s reports.

“Here’s why 2021 could be a great year for unions,” CNN reported last March.

“With the popular support of the American public for essential workers, a new labor movement is perfectly poised to rise in this country,” said the Brown Political Review.

“America is in the midst of a dramatic labor resurgence,” a headline from The New Republic shouted in October.

“Unions are coming back as more workers feel undervalued,” Boston 25 News reported just two weeks ago.

All of these people seem to subscribe to the idea that if you keep predicting the same thing over and over again, it will eventually come true. After all, the world will be finish one day. But it’s not that day.


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