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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

What’s the state of the American labor movement?

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York attends a rally of activists calling for higher wages in the fast food industry in Manhattan in June. NYT

Labor Day used to be more than a summer-ending holiday; it was a celebration of labor unions and the American labor movement. That’s easy to forget these days because labor unions don’t have much to celebrate.

At the height of their influence in the 1950s, labor unions could claim to represent about 1 of every 3 American workers. Today, it’s 1 in 9 — and falling.

Some have seen the shrinking size and waning influence of labor unions as a sign that the US economy is growing more flexible and dynamic, but there’s mounting evidence that it is also contributing to slow wage growth and the rise in inequality.


Who are these union members?

While union membership has fallen to just 11 percent of US workers, that’s still 14.6 million people — more than twice the population of Massachusetts.

Variations abound when you break the numbers down by race, gender, and geography. There are more union men then union women, and a higher percentage of blacks than whites. Public sector workers are five times more likely to join unions than their private-sector counterparts, and workers in New York are 13 times more likely to do so than workers in North Carolina.

Why has union membership fallen so far?

It’s really a tale of two sectors, the public and the private.

Public-sector unions — meaning those that represent local, state, and federal government employees — have been pretty stable. In 1984, 36 percent of public sector workers were in unions, virtually the same rate we see today.

By contrast, private-sector unions have been decimated. Their membership numbers have fallen nearly 60 percent since 1984, partly in response to globalization and partly as a result of various legal changes that have curtailed unions’ ability to organize.

Is it also because of falling support for unions?

Surprisingly, no. Going back to 1985, the Pew Research Center has been asking people whether they have a favorable view of unions. And though the numbers do fluctuate a bit, 40 percent to 60 percent of people consistently say they support unions while 35 percent to 45 percent say they don’t.


Are unions faring any better here in Massachusetts?

While Massachusetts’s unions are stronger than average, it’s not among the most heavily unionized states. That honor goes to New York, where 1 in every 4 workers belongs to a union. After New York, there are 12 other states with higher union membership rates then Massachusetts.

Does it matter that unions are in decline?

Unions increase the bargaining power of workers, which translates into higher earnings and a stronger voice for employees.

The big economic critique of unions is that while they may help members, they actually hurt other workers. By interfering with the natural operations of the economy, they push wages above their normal level, heighten inflation, and make it difficult for companies to hire and fire workers as needed.

On the other hand, recent research has traced a direct line between the fall of unions and some of the foremost problems in the US economy, including rising inequality and stagnant wages. As unions have lost power, income has increasingly flowed up to the top 10 percent earners.


What does this mean for Labor Day?

Union or nonunion, everyone could use a long weekend. But three days off leaves ample time for reflection.

For decades, unions played the leading role in championing the rights of workers. If that era is over, who is left to do the championing? Or can we do without such a voice when globalization, robotification, and other big economic changes are affecting more and more workers?


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.