Michigan Unions Continue to Lose Support among Workers

Union Membership in MI is Down Despite 450,000 New Jobs

Evidence is mounting that the compulsory union movement is losing the confidence of working Americans, even in union strongholds like Michigan. In spite of a renewed commitment to organizing, and new organizing methods and arrangements that make it easier for unions to secure representation rights, a return to big labor’s glory days appears remote.

Nationwide, private-sector union membership has declined from over 9.7 million in 1992 to a little more than 8.65 million in 2002, in spite of the addition of more than 14 million jobs over that 10-year period. In fact, last year a mere 8.7 percent of private-sector workers were union members, while 91.3 percent were not. The biggest drop in union membership has occurred in manufacturing, where rolls declined by more than a third during the same period.

For Michigan, a manufacturing state, the declines have followed suit. Private-sector union membership in Michigan declined by 55,000 between 1992 and 2002, although the state gained 450,000 jobs in that period. The percentage of union members among private-sector Michigan workers declined from 19.6 percent in 1992 to 15.7 percent in 2002.

In short, over in the past decade, while there have been swings back and forth, the trend is clear: Michigan has gained jobs, while unions have lost members.

Why the loss of union membership? While union spokesmen blame unscrupulous employers for their inability to maintain numbers, the real problems are less sinister: loss of union jobs in many industries; a failure to adapt to a changing workplace; and a union organizing message that turns off employees.

While unions boast of their ability to raise wages and benefits for the workers they represent, they have, in some cases, increased costs to the point where employers find it difficult to compete. One example is the airline industry, where nearly all of the major carriers, including Northwest Airlines, have heavily unionized workforces. Of all the major carriers, only one, non-union Southwest Airlines, has been profitable over the last 20 years. In a slow economy, with demand for air travel further depressed by terrorism, war and the emergence of the SARS virus, the unionized airlines are risking bankruptcy.

Deregulation in traditionally unionized industries has brought greater competition both at home and abroad. Shifts in the American labor market from the stagnant manufacturing sector to an expanding service sector, with its largely white collar and technical occupations, have also presented organizing challenges to unions. Also, the avalanche of federal and state employment laws has supplanted the unions’ traditional role of collective bargainer for workplace protections.

While unions have little power to affect such trends, there is much they can do to re-make themselves to become more attractive to workers.

They could begin by ridding themselves of corrupt leaders whose conduct tarnishes the image of honest, hard-working union supporters. Labor unions should abandon the old, outmoded adversarial model of labor relations and instead study ways they can create a better atmosphere; in which labor and management cooperatively solve problems in ways that promote free enterprise. Unions should cease harassment tactics against businesses, such as planting union agents (referred to as “salts”) among workforces, or organizing boycotts and public relations campaigns against non-unionized firms. The goal should be winning back the hearts, minds and loyalties of workers, not destroying the businesses that employ them.

Effective representation also entails respect for the rights of union members, those for whom unions are organized in the first place. Unions should acknowledge “Beck” rights by refunding dues spent for political or social purposes to those members who object to this type of non-workplace related spending. Just as publicly held corporations are required to report their financial condition, unions also should drop their objections to an annual accounting to dues payers of how they spend their members’ money.

When existing members feel a renewed pride and enthusiasm for their unions, they will spread a positive message to non-unionized workers. Labor unions should concentrate on making good-will ambassadors of their members, by providing them with the kind of fair and effective representation they expect.

Anything less will be a disservice to union workers, whose numbers will continue to dwindle.


(Robert P. Hunter is director of labor policy and Paul Kersey is labor research associate, both with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information on labor issues is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliation are cited.)


The number of jobs has increased, yet union membership is dwindling, both in Michigan and in the nation as a whole. The reasons are many, some having to do with trends upon which unions have little power. But they could become less adversarial, more representative of the views of their members, and more accountable for their financial dealings.

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