Protecting Employers Since 1985

Decline of Private Sector Unions

In my introduction, I reprinted my commentary from 2005 on why private sector unions are in such a state of decline. Those factors are true today. Here is a list of the factors without my 2005 commentary:

1. Traditional base is disappearing

2. Management is far more sophisticated in countering the threat of unions

3. Crime and corruption have devastated the public image of unions

4. Structure of labor unions makes them ineffective

5. Multi-employer bargaining is fast disappearing

6. Adversary structure of the NLRA is the wrong model for long-term union success

7. Worker protection laws have lessened the need for unions

8. Management is more responsive to employee needs than they were decades ago when it was easy for unions to organize

9. There is no one to replace the great union leaders of the “glory days”

10. Rise of management-side lawyers and consultants has made it tough on unions

The decline of private sector unions is irrefutable. Statistics paint the picture. Unions are down from a mid-1950s market share of 35% to 6.7% today. Equally telling are the statistics on NLRB organizing elections. Private sector unions are not filing as many election petitions these days. The decline is dramatic.

Year Total number of elections for union representation
1997 3,261
1998 3,296
1999 3,012
2000 2,896
2001 2,571
2002 2,675
2003 2,352
2004 2,293
2005 2,099
2006 1,650
2007 1,510
2008 1,588
2009 1,304
2010 1,571
2011 1,398
2012 1,348
2013 1,330
2014 1,407
2015 1,574

Going back further to the late 1960s and through the 1970s, unions were filing nearly 8,000 petitions a year. Compare that to today’s numbers which have leveled out at about 1,500, and you can see what’s happening. Beyond the clear picture of less and less union organizing activity, there is strong anecdotal evidence of decline. Here are a few of my observations:

· Over the last ten years most private sector local unions are down in membership in northern Illinois about 30%, many locals far more than that.

· Many local unions have been forced to merge to stay alive.

· Union business agents are stretched thin and their major focus is contract administration and negotiations. They don’t have time for organizing. It’s a vicious circle – the local doesn’t have a budget for paid organizers and because they don’t have organizers their income is going down.

· Even if a union can win an NLRB election, it is very hard for them to get that first contract. A high percentage of union election wins end with the union walking away without a contract or a decertification.

· Decertifications are up, and this includes many long standing labor contract relationships.

Organized labor thought they would get help from the Obama administration and desperately wanted card check (Employee Free Choice Act). They didn’t get it. The relatively minimal NLRB rule changes such as the new ambush election rules are too little, too late.

Private sector unions will be with us for quite a while yet. They are down but not out. Look for more aggressive political activity to further their cause with such strategies as project labor agreements, prevailing wage laws, laws to restrict management-side attorneys and consultants, and restrictive licensing. Maybe they will get their much sought-after card check legislation, and that is something that could bring them back.

Questions? Contact Attorney Richard Wessels in our St. Charles office at (630) 377-1554 or by email at

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