The share of the American work force that belongs to a labor union has hit a 97 year low. Today only 11.3 percent of workers hold a union membership. Labor expert Tony Carnevale of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce says the federal government has replaced the labor union for many American workers, in pushing for health and safety regulations, minimum wage legislation and equal pay.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The share of the U.S. workforce that belongs to a union has dropped to a 97-year low. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yesterday that 11.3 percent of American workers belong to a union. That's down from 11.8 percent last year.
We are now incredibly far removed from the heyday of unionization, the 1950s, when over a third of private jobs were unionized. That figure is now down to 6.6 percent. Unionized America these days is public sector America, where 35.9 percent of workers belong to a union.
Well, joining us to talk about this now is Professor Anthony Carnevale, who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Good to see you again.
ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Good to see you.
SIEGEL: Let's parse these numbers a little. There's a general trend of declining union membership, which I'd like to hear from you about. But first, there were two big drops this year, in Wisconsin and Indiana. Tell us about them.
CARNEVALE: In the case - in both cases, it's essentially legislative changes and changes in collective bargaining. That is, membership declined because of both budget cuts and a change in the rules of the game in those states. So, to some extent, those drops are a product of our politics, less a product of the way the economy is organized.
SIEGEL: But do those drops suggest that, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would have it, that if union members are permitted to leave and they're no longer hostage to a union shop, they will?
CARNEVALE: Sure. One of the harsh realities of organizing in a union is that if people can free-ride on a membership, they will.
SIEGEL: Why is the U.S. economy today so much less fertile ground for unions than it was, say, 50 years ago? What's the big difference?
CARNEVALE: The big difference, ultimately, resides in the economy itself. There was a day when if you wanted to organize workers, you - all you had to do is show up at the factories in America three times a day. There were three shifts. Shifts changed three times a day. You stood there and talked to the workers when they came out.
Then the second act in labor was the organization of the public employees. There, you didn't go to a factory, but there was a governor, a legislature, a county exec, a mayor. And they all had the same boss, so they were easy to organize.
There is no third act. There's nowhere to go anymore where you can get large numbers of workers. In Washington, D.C., where we live, if you wanted to organize the workers, the factory gate is really the subway. That's where they come out in the morning, but they go to thousands of different offices. You couldn't write thousands of agreements.
SIEGEL: But you're also - you're not looking for Joe Lunchbox anymore. You're looking for Joe Briefcase, who's going to work to a white-collar job. I'll put my cards on the table. I, like nearly all the people who work on this program and at this network, am a member of an AFL-CIO member union, which seems to be part of the problem. If I'm the face of organized labor, we're talking about the relatively comfortable middle class that's now in the unions, not the struggling workers.
CARNEVALE: Labor missed two other opportunities. One was there was always a coalition. The AFL-CIO, after all, was the AFL, which were skilled workers, and the CIO, which were unskilled. That coalition has collapsed long ago. The new skilled workers go to college and take a briefcase to work.
The second problem was that the AFL-CIO never reached out to the growing service economy, which was female and minority and diverse, and labor's had its problems with dealing with diversity and with women.
SIEGEL: Do you just assume this is an irreversible trend, that the heyday of unions is behind us or that something might happen to push the numbers up?
CARNEVALE: I hate to say so because it's part of my own history, but I think the bottom line is it's hard to organize. It's hard to find the people in one place with one boss that you can sign up. And what's happened as a result of that is that the government has become the union of last resort. This is where we fight out the issues. National health care is a bargaining issue. But it was a bargain - it is a bargain between the government and the private sector, not between bosses and workers.
SIEGEL: Tony Carnevale, thanks a lot for talking with us.
CARNEVALE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Professor Anthony Carnevale runs the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.