Labor unions in America have experienced a tremendous decline in membership over the past several decades, losing members even during times of relative prosperity. For example, between 1994 and 1995, the number of union members dropped 300,000to 16.4 million workersdespite the fact that employment increased by over two million workers during the same period. Largely as a result of a decrease in unionized private-sector workers, the unionized share of the total U. S. labor force declined from 15.5 to 14.9 percent.
This overall trend of decline continued apace in 1998, despite recent gains in public-sector unionization: Unions now represent 37.5 percent of public-sector employees but only 9.5 percent of private-sector workers. Private-sector union representation peaked in 1953 at a level of 35.7 percent, and it has been a downhill slide for unions since that time.
The organizing challenge facing labor unions just to maintain their 10 percent share of private-sector employee representation is formidable. To meet the challenge, unions will have to organize roughly 200,000 private-sector workers each year (assuming current rates of workforce growth). To maintain their representation level in the public-sector workforce, unions will have to add 100,000 public-sector employees per year.
However, there is even more to the story. In recent years, unions have been losing membership in absolute, not just relative, terms. Thus, to keep up, they must stem this membership decline while adding new members. Given the rate at which workers have been leaving unions, the labor movement will have to add nearly 700,000 members per year just to maintain its current levels of employee representation. Achieving even a modest one-percent increase in unions' representation rate would increase the organizing task by another one million new workers every year.134
Another indicator of the organized labor movement's decline is in the results of NLRB-supervised union elections held over the period from 1984 to 1995. During that period, the overall union success rate in representation elections averaged between 45 to 50 percent. In other words, unions lost over half of all the election petitions filed seeking to certify them as exclusive employee representatives.135 Moreover, unions consistently lose more than half of all decertification electionsthe elections in which employees vote to determine whether they wish their existing union to continue representing them.