Union Membership Declines to Lowest Since 1916: Here's How it Could Rise Again


The future of unions looks grim: A new statistic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the total number of union members fell by 400,000 last year, to 14.3 million, the lowest membership level since 1916. These numbers don’t tell us much about the decline of union power that we hadn’t already learned from Michigan, Wisconsin, and the punch in the gut to labor that was 2012

Labor unions are aware of the challenges they face and responding by building a more expansive movement. Unions are investing in greater outreach and mobilizing around issues that impact their members and communities regardless of its pertinence to worker’s rights, and joining forces with immigration, LGBT, and antipoverty activists to lobby policymakers on pivotal progressive issues. 

But in New Haven, Connecticut, union affiliates are doing more than lobbying.

In January 2012, 18 of New Haven’s 30 city aldermen (similar to city councillors) were union members, part of a coalition supported by UNITE HERE to take on the previous moderate and conservative aldermen

Historically, unions have always been agents in strengthening communities and providing services for the public. Labor unions were a key part of the progressive movement of the early 19th century, working against income inequality, the challenges of mass immigrations, and expansive urban growth. This advocacy was part of a broad coalition fighting for all people, regardless of union membership. Job training, educational opportunities, and assistance in organizing, are all classic services provided by unions for all members of the public. But a majority of elected officials supported by a union on a governing body is something new. 

The economic and political challenges facing New Haven spurred the coalition, and the aldermen (alderpeople, actually) are tackling these challenges head on. The murder rate in New Haven in 2011 was 34 homicides: since the UNITE HERE sponsored coalition was elected, that number has been cut in half. New Haven also has significant unemployment, with over 11.9 of residents without jobs. The current aldermen are now in the midst of building a “jobs pipeline,” connecting unemployed people to the training and education needed for work in New Haven industries, one of the best methods of addressing the skills gap present in the local economy. It seems that the city aldermen are addressing what people really need in New Haven. 

Unions are not just for workers, but help everyone: strong political networks invested in the security and well being of a community can only be an asset in communities like New Haven all over the country. New Haven could be a wake up call to unions looking to eliminate the public stigma built up by conservative and business interests, and build ties to all those trying to make their communities a better place to live.

As president of United 34 in New Haven articulated, “in this economic moment… working people need all of the fighters they can get.” In places like New Haven, greater political power for those who will fight for people can only be good for the public.