Union Membership Drops: What Associations Can Learn

While many unions had outside factors play into the steepest membership drops seen in decades, there may be some important things to learn from the situation.

Unions—which have faced an array of legal and political challenges in recent years—are on the decline, according to recent government figures.

According to a story on the figures from Reuters, the total number of union members fell by 400,000 nationwide, with unions representing 11.3 percent of the population in 2012—the lowest level seen since 1936, during the Great Depression.

While unions had a number of challenges facing them that were political in nature, including the passage of “right to work” laws in states such as Wisconsin and Indiana, some of the issues they faced are  things that associations could also deal with.

What can associations learn? Some key facts:

The economy’s drag: Beyond the political issues, the economy may be dragging on unions as a whole—particularly in the public sector, where unions lost 234,000 members in 2012 alone, mostly teachers. This trend follows the shedding of public-sector employees as a whole, which dropped 489,000 jobs from late 2007 to late 2012. But that said, other sectors have held on despite the challenges faced. Nonprofits, for example, have outpaced other sectors in recent years, despite economic troubles.

Key demographic weaknesses: Many younger workers are not union members, with just 4.2 percent of workers aged 16 to 24 counted as union members—versus 14.9 percent for workers aged 55 to 64. Women, who made up 57 percent of public-sector workers, represented 72 percent of the decline in union membership last year. If you were facing these kinds of demographic weaknesses, how would you try to alleviate them?

Are members engaged? Some analysts note that the decline in union membership, which started in 2008, may be related to engagement. Clark University’s Gary Chaison suggested that this may be an issue of lacking engagement with members. “They must now admit that they are not investing enough staff and funds in organizing and not embarking on an imaginative journey to rediscover the relevancy of unions,” he told Reuters. “Essentially, workers are feeling tremendous job insecurity … Yet as today’s figures suggest, workers are not turning to unions to act as their voice.”

If you were running a union instead of an association and were facing such challenges, how would you work to improve the situation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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