AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has challenged 2020 Democratic candidates to prove their support and not to take the union vote for granted — but there are half as many union members today than there were just 35 years ago, according to the Pew Research Center.
Why it matters: Half of Americans say the decline of unions has had a negative impact on workers, according to a Pew Research Center survey. And it may be a central reason for stagnant wages and growing income inequality in the U.S., according to a new study by the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project.
Between the lines: President Trump's appeal to blue-collar workers was a major factor in his victories in what were once big union states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Hillary Clinton won the union vote by the narrowest margin in decades.
- But the decline hasn't made labor a less important part of the Democratic coalition, as top 2020 candidates such as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have already begun to woo union voters.
- Our thought bubble, from Axios' Dan Primack: Sanders and Warren have been unabashedly pro-union. An argument could be made that one of them becoming president could be the one thing that could bring back unions. It would be a central part of their campaign — not a "take for granted" sidelight.
By the numbers:
- Despite low wages and severe income inequality, the percentage of U.S. workers who are union members has fallen from 20.1% in 1983 to just 10.5% in 2018, according to Pew.
- Dying union membership has been most pronounced in states such as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states where manufacturing employment has plummeted and Trump won in 2016, per Brookings.
The main reasons for the decline, according to Brookings:
- The shift from manufacturing to a services-based economy.
- More people are getting college degrees, and workers with a high school degree or less have typically been more likely to have union jobs.
- The rise of tech, with the attraction of more high-paying, nonunion jobs for the highest-skilled workers.
- Deregulation, which made it easier for nonunion employers to compete.
- The spread of right-to-work legislation, which allows for some workers to receive the benefits of unions without paying dues.
- Aggressive employers who have used tactics like delaying union elections, hiring consultants to help fight unionization and publicly opposing unions.
What to watch: Public sector unions have maintained their strength over the past several decades, according to Brookings. But a recent Supreme Court decision preventing public sector unions from collecting fees from nonunion employees could have a significant impact on membership.