A critical analysis of the decline of membership in labor movements and trade unions

A critical analysis of the decline of membership in labor movements and trade unions with a focus on the electric labor unions in America

Unionization of workers is a concept that began many years ago in quest by trade unionists to protect workers in different trades against mistreatment by employers. Globally, workers are covered under the umbrella union, the International Labor organization (ILO) which serves to deliberate about issues affecting workers as well as setting minimum standards for which all employers in ratified countries must abide. Currently, ILO has a global reach with a no exception of the US. Trade unionism has existed to unite employers, government and workers, to ensure that there is collective bargaining for employment terms and that employees give quality services for quality and just pay received. However, with the proliferation of labor movements in the world was for the interest of creating solidarity among workers to campaign for improved conditions of work and fair treatment from employers through an implementation of employment and labor laws in their governments. Labor movements are therefore united through trade unions, which represent the interests of smaller groups of workers. This paper analyses the reasons for declining membership in labor union across the world as well as providing a focus on the United States of America and particularly the electric workers unions in various parts of the US.


In the US, all trade unions are aligned to the American Federation of Labor –either Congress of Industrial Organizations (abbreviated as AFL-CIO) or the Change to Win Federation that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both AFL-CIO and Change to Win Federation represent workers in advocating for legislations and policies as well as participating in politics. As one of the benefits of unionization, statistics show that workers in unions earn about 10-30% higher wages that those not in unions (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1).

The illustration below shows how the US has suffered membership declines in trade unionism and how the phenomenon has declined the value of wages earned at the same time.

Despite the fact that trade unions have good promises, this is not reflected in the commitment of unified members. For instance, there has been a steady decline in union membership in the last three decades with statistics showing that in 2013, there were about 14.5 million workers (11.3% of total working population) in unions in the US compared to 17.7 million (20.1% of total working population) 30 years ago. In comparison, unionization in the US is quite low compared to Germany (18.4%), Finland (70%) and Canada (27.5%). The membership of private sector workers has also drastically declined (6.7%), a figure that is unique since 1932. Many of the current employees in unions are the public sector (35.2%) and include mainly government employees, police, teachers and city employees. Similarly, more men tend to join unions in the US (11.5%) than women (10.6%). Data reveals that New York has the highest membership in unions (24.7%) as South Carolina remains the least unionized state with a prevalence of only 2.1% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1).


Today, labor unions stand because of depredations in industrial capitalism where workers seek to protect and strengthen their interests against employers who feign blindness to growing profits and changes in economic states as well as changes in the cost of living. Because of this realization, the ILO helps to set minimum wages that workers can earn depending with the economic states of a country. In the United States, the growth of the labor movement was not any different because trade unions grew to protect the common interests of employees. In the industrial sector in the US, unions aggressively sought for reasonable working hours, better wages and good working conditions in the formative years. Specific to the US, the labor movement was the pioneer in fighting against child labor as well as introduction of health benefits to workers retiring or being injured at work. The union movement is also instrumental in handling worker disputes in relation to disputes and other matters affecting employees and their employers. Currently, it is almost mandatory for all employers to provide these services to their employees including health insurance, pension schemes, housing and other prescribed allowances by law based on the type of work that employees do.


Electricians generally repair, install and maintain electrical power as well as lighting, communications and control of home, business and factory systems.  Electricians work outdoors and indoors on full time and may also work late evenings and weekends although there is less evidence that their work is more dangerous compared to other construction trades although they are highly exposed to electric shocks, cuts, falls and burns. Electricians generally do not need high qualifications in education to start the trade although many states need them to be licensed. According to the bureau of labor statistics (1), the average annual wages for electricians in the US is $51110. It is projected that electricians will have more opportunities for employment in the next decade estimated at 14% more since many households will require wiring electricians, making it the fastest growing occupation in the US.

As far as unionization for electricians are concerned, their unionization shares similar trends as the national trends in the US with a sharp decline of workers belonging to various electricians unions. Electricians generally belong to the umbrella union of electricians, the International Brotherhood of electrical workers (IBEW) union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Being the most popular, IBEW has managed to unionize more than 0.75 million electricians and retirees in the electrical industry of the US, Panama, Canada, Wake and Guan (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1). From statistical records, the union had a record of one million members in 1972 but membership continued to decline since then at a slow pace through the 1980s. A reason for the decline has been perceived as the breakup ordered by the court in 1982 for American Telephone and telegraph workers (AT&T) yet this category contributed a good number of members. There has been stability of membership since 2013 at around 750000 members.

According to Bolle (17), unions in the electrical field have existed since the industrialization period. However, the union has been experiencing declines in membership since 1954. It is however reported that as membership reduced, the average middle income per employee reduced proportionately since 1967 (Bronfenbrenner, 119). Even though declines have been observed all through, the labor department in 2007 reported the first ever increase in membership within electrical labor movements since the last 25 years which was at the same time the largest ever increase since 1979. The increase was attributable to the service sector, as majority of the manufacturing sector employees remain un-unionized. California has the highest distribution of 16.7% for unionized members. On average, the electrical workers unions have lost membership for reasons not well known. Described in this paper are some of the reasons unions (including those for electric workers) continue to observe declines in membership.


Studies reveal that declines observed in membership of unions as well as the rates of unionization have been a global phenomenon and the US technically has performed significantly well (Rainer and Gearhart, 190). This means that it may be inaccurate to think that changes in market structures have been the reasons behind declines in unionization rates for electrical unions as well as other trade and labor movements. Scholars have tried to explain the declines in unionization based on a myriad of factors mentioned below.

Global trends: The attributing factor is the global trends in decreasing membership not only in electrical unions but also in all other trade union affiliations across the world. A study of industrialized countries about union membership was conducted for 1970-2003 by the US bureau of labor statistics, which found that 80% (16 of 20) of the developed economies had their unions experiencing declines in membership during the period of study. In this period, the US union density declined from 23.4% to 12.4% although other economies had even worse results. For instance, Australia observed a drop from 50% to 23% unionization for the same period while for New Zealand observed declines from 55.2% to 22.1%. Union membership in Austria decreased to 35% up from 63% while in the UK; declines for the period of 1970-2003 were 44.8% to 29.3%. The smallest decline was observed for Canada i.e. from 32% to 28%. From this study therefore, by 1970, all countries in the study had higher membership in unions than the US apart from France (21.7% to 8.3%) but saw declines with an average almost similar to that of the US implying that declining unionization was a global phenomenon for developed and advanced economies. The only countries that had increased union membership were Finland, Sweden, Belgium and Denmark (Robert and Gall, 1).

State popularity: Another reason why the US might be experiencing declines in unionization of electrical workers (as well as workers in other occupations) may be looked at as popularity. The figure shown below is a diagrammatic representation of a historical perspective of public support for unions and union membership in USA.

From the figure, unions gained public approvals in 1980s just like for other industrialized countries. However, declines in public support were observed after 2009, which fall below 50%, a time when the world experienced a financial crisis called the great recession. After this time, the rates of unemployment also shot up in the US and many other countries, which Goldfield (87) notes that it is a historical attribute for low public approval for trade unionism. With such times, O’Brien, Robert (561) argues that it is possible to see labor movement supporters and businesspersons (employers) working in solidarity making the public develop a perception that their unions are betraying their interests hence the attempt to campaign against them (by terming the trade unionists as bosses). In fact, Scruggs. And Lange (129) opine that a perceived feeling that a union is in partnership with the employers to deprive of their rights often decrease faith in labor unions. Lack of critical mass and union power has contributed to declines in public support for trade union movements in all occupations. In America, it is perceived among the public that the Unions of 1930s denied because the current trade unions believe very much in dialogue and hardly have the threat effect that keeps trade unions powerful across the world. When unions were unions, their threats to employers had the power to raise salaries for non-union members just like the union members by virtue of the threats they roared but seemingly, the public does not see this pressure anymore. Therefore, this reduction in public support might have reduced membership in electric trade unions over time.

However, opinion polls on trade unions in America do not give a clear guideline about their support for the lot and are not clear on whether labor movements are doing anything great in America. In a series of such polls, Americans are divided on the role of trade unions, and whether the unions should be allowed to survive based on their political alignments. A CBS poll revealed that nearly three fifths of Americans supporting union driven collective bargaining while some 55% of the Americans opposed reduction of wages of employees implying support for trade union movements. A later poll by Gallup however showed reduced support for labor movements in 2011 with only 45% Americans supporting collecting bargaining.

In another public opinion by the same group, 38% of American would describe unions negatively as opposed to 34% with a positive description. Later in 2011, a Gallup poll suggested that 48% of Americans supported unions than governors in handling state labor disputes where most of the supporters of unions were democrats and independents. The latest poll towards the end of 2011 by Gallup group demonstrated that labor unions in America were supported by 52%  of Americans but in terms of political affiliations, three quarters of democrats believed in trade unions supported by half of independents and a quarter of republicans. However, it was affirmed that about 55% of Americans did not see a future for trade unions and 42% wanted labor movements to have less influence because according to two thirds of the Americans, trade unions only helped their members in times of need but hurt those who were not members.

Based on the public opinion polls, it seems that Americans have some support for trade union movements but the margin is not strong enough. Besides, non-members who should be the target for trade unions as potential members also have negative feelings about labor movements, which hamper the anticipated growth in membership and this could be one of the contributing factor towards declining unionization of electric employees in the US.

Influence of institutional environments on union density: The drop in union membership is also thought to be dependent on institutional environments across different countries. In a quantitative study by Sano and Williamson (479), a number of factors were assessed about the receptiveness of the environments in unions and labor organizations. In this study, the Ghent system happened to be an important decline factor; systems where by unions have the responsibility to distribute unemployment insurance. Similarly, the study revealed that the organization of collective bargaining at industry or national level instead of local and firm levels influence union membership because, together with the Ghent system, unions have more power to correlate with the union density rates. Generally, unions tend to be successful in workplace institutions where they are given greater access and acceptance either by law or by employer cooperation (Ebbinghaus and Visser, 139). They also tend to be successful where there exists a corporatist relationship with state machineries because they can easily participate in governance structures as well as legislations officially. Another form of institution influences to union density rates includes fluctuations in the rates of inflation, employment and business cycles.

The labor legislation effect on union membership: A number of legislations and laws in different countries have been made which support and hinder the performance of labor movements across the world in equal measure. One of the most quotes legislation in the US is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which Cotti, Haley and Miller (411) assert slowed before halting labor movement growth before eventually (later years) made the labor movement to roll back all the gains it had gathered previously. The law forbade mass picketing, sit-downs and secondary strikes by employers who were neutral and anything that was negotiated within the Lewis grand scale of 1930s. This law was also slower and subtler working holding up any new organization in labor movements that would form even on a low-key quiet scale. They required very many hearings, secret ballot elections, campaign periods and all sorts of manner of barriers before a new union would be recognized officially. Using the legislation, workers would be threatened by their employers when they organized for any form of solidarity where such employers would be justified under law to have captive meetings and grill up employees who thought of forming or joining a union. This law actually led to bursting of unions, which continues to date after some employees threatened to violate Wagner Act of 1935 with nothing happening to them to fire workers at will, or relinquish them if they exercised their labor relations rights such as strikes. Just like the Wagner Act of 1935, which highlights the rights of workers and union movements, much legislation do not provide for penalties and sanctions, should employers not honor the law and this has quickly weakened the labor movement hence declining membership. The reason is that the employers is hardly prosecuted making unions only toothless dogs that can only back, attack but not bite. In many states, union officials are usually arrested and fined heavily for picketing, rioting, demonstration, work go-slows, mass picketing as well as secondary strikes. Such acts make members find no need of joining trade unions especially in the electric industry. In other sectors especially those run by the government, employees are restricted by law to join unions and participate in such other activities. These sentiments according to Scruggs and Lange (129) simply mean that politics play a major role in determining the strength, which trade unions can have in the society.

The impact of economic globalization: studies have been established in the field of labor relations and the impact of economic globalization. Studies on foreign direct investments for example have shown some significant correlations with the density of labor movements thus globalization of the economy does pose some significant strength for the trade unions although this depends on factors such as how the union can access such globalized economies and centralized bargaining (Scruggs and Lange, 128). However, the influence is also dependent on the history of labor movements in the country that exports their economies as well as those that hosts such economies. Looking particularly on the US, globalization has not had any positive impact on union density for electric industry workers because historically, the country has not had a good update of trade unionism.

Strategies employed by employers: Finally, trade unionism has suffered reduced densities especially because of the strategies used by employers to jeopardize these organizations. Employers generally try their best to make sure that employees do not join respective unions. One such strategy is firing employees who tend to be greatly involved in unions and preventing the access of trade unionists in their premises. Employers have also devised additional strategies such as lobbying and government involvement to make sure that trade unions are not as powerful as they ought to be.

In conclusion, the impact of the labor movement needs to be felt so that unions can be justified to gain membership. Some of the reasons cited for reducing numbers include collision by union leaders with employers to downplay their constituents in exchange for a few dollars. In the electric sector, unionization has not only helped members to access several services such as just pay but also relieved from trade based misfortunes such as accidents and shocks and therefore help its members have a good send off when contracts are terminated. The question of union membership and density declines cannot be exhausted, as a number of factors are in question including poor legislative regimes, globalization and global trends as well as poor membership mobilization and advertising of trade unions. Addressing these factors could see a rise in union numbers across the world.


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