Over the last thirty years, union membership has decreased in size nearly 50%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, the rate of union membership in the United States was 11.1%; compared to the 1983 rate, which stood at 20.1%. To understand the dramatic decline in membership, one must consider the loss of an American industry–manufacturing–and the impact it continues to have on our economy.

A Midwest Loss

Union membership has seen the largest decline in the Midwest, the heartland of manufacturing jobs. But since the 1960’s, both the manufacturing jobs and the prevalence of union membership have faded.

According to the Economist, “manufacturing employment in America has fallen from nearly 20 million in 1979 to 12 million today.”

While this loss may seem extreme, it’s a common result of an advanced economy. Unskilled labor is no longer in demand thanks to the cheaper exports of emerging countries. And coupled with the rise in technological advances over the last few decades, when one visits a factory today, the visualization is much different. 60 years ago, the place might be buzzing with workers completing tasks. Today, robots and machines complete the work, controlled by a small staff of men.

Additionally, recent federal regulations have made unions less necessary. For example, the rise in minimum wage and the efforts to reduce workplace discrimination and harassment have made the workplace a safer and healthier place to be. In an advanced economy like the United States, where the rights of workers are constantly reevaluated in their favor, a unionized structure quickly falls out of fashion.

One final critique of the union lies in its inability to connect with younger generations. This is tied to the fact that many of the nation’s youngest workers possess part time positions or are self employed, two avenues that are unserved by union leadership. But their support is not all lost.

Countries like Great Britain have made tremendous strides in capturing the support of the youth. By making membership digitally accessible and revamping the language to a more modern appeal, British unions have seen an uptick in the rate of younger members over the last few years.  

This animated map from NPR reveals the stark drop in membership rate over the past sixty years.