For those of us in and around the American labor movement, late January is an anxious time. That’s when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its annual report on union membership in the United States — always depressing reading. This year’s report was the worst in recent memory. With only 11.3% of American workers in unions, union density in 2012 reached its lowest level since 1916.
Of course, this decline is but one facet of the global fall in labor’s influence, the relative union strongholds of continental Europe and Scandinavia included. But the U.S. is still the fulcrum of the global economy, so a weak American labor movement is especially bad news for the working classes of all nations.
Friends of labor greeted the news with despair, seizing on the figures as the latest portent of the movement’s seemingly terminal crisis. Labor’s enemies greeted the news with barely concealed glee, and for the same reason. Most disturbingly, attacks on public sector bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and elsewhere have begun to erode union membership in the public sector, the movement’s last redoubt in the U.S.