Organized Labor has been Hurting Since Well Before the Passage of Right to Work in Michigan

Chart of the Day: the fall of the house of labor.

Bill Pugliano/Getty

The recent passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan, once the beating heart of the union movement and its auto-industry base, will sharply curtail the ability of unions to charge dues to the workers they represent. It is just another in a long line of defeats for organized labor.

Union membership peaked in the 1950s at around 35 percent of all workers. The 50s were also the height of America’s postwar industrialization and the union power that accompanied it. Since then, the industries in which unions were the strongest—heavy manufacturing—have shrunk, moved offshore, or moved to states in which unions couldn’t gain much traction.

The chart above shows the private-sector union membership rate since 1973, when it stood at 24 percent, according to data collected at The proportion has been steadily declining ever since then, falling off by more than two thirds. Now, just under 7 percent of all private-sector workers are union members, compared with 37 percent of all public-sector workers, and 11.8 percent of all workers. For the private sector, it’s gone from about one in every four workers being in a union to nearly 1 in every 14.