Just 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union in 2012, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, according to a new report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released on Wednesday. The percentage of workers in a union varies widely by industry and geography, however. For example, 35.9 percent of public sector workers belonged to a union versus just 6.6 percent of private sector workers. New York state had the highest union membership rate in the nation at 23.2 percent while North Carolina's 2.9 percent rate was the lowest.
As the Atlantic noted earlier last year, the overall numbers put union membership rates at their lowest point since the early 20th century.
Labor officials and experts blame a variety of factors on the shift -- the collapse of manufacturing, improved business tactics against organizing, tougher global competition. In a statement responding to the latest figures, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka wrote that "our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership, and in the process have also imperiled economic security and good, middle class jobs."
As Trumka noted, unions have suffered a number of political setbacks in recent years -- their top priority in Congress, card check legislation that would make it easier to form a union, appears dead and several of the Republican governors elected in the 2010 GOP wave have signed laws limiting collecting bargaining rights. Labor officials are putting their resources towards passing immigration reform this year, hoping that a legal path to citizenship for undocumented workers could pave the way to successful organizing efforts in growing low-wage industries like home health care. But as the latest numbers indicate, they still haven't hit the floor even after years of free fall.
"We enter 2013 with our eyes open and understand that these challenges offer real opportunities for working people to reshape the future," Trumka wrote. "Working families are building community alliances, engaging with young workers and immigrants, fighting right-wing politicians and organizing in innovative ways."