As was reaffirmed by Vice-President Biden on Labor Day, the American middle class was originally built by the labor movement. That unions have been declining in this country for decades is not exactly news. But where does the U.S. stand relative to the other industrialized democracies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD)? The obvious measure of the strength of the labor movement is the proportion of the workforce that is unionized, usually referred to as union density (although it is well known that the French labor movement is far stronger than its low union density would suggest).
The short answer is that the U.S. ranks 30th of the 34-member OECD. U.S. union density stood at only 11.4% in 2010, significantly below the OECD average of 18.1% last year. The only OECD countries with a lower proportion of labor organized are Estonia (8.0%), France (7.6% in 2008), South Korea (10.0% in 2009), and Turkey (5.9% in 2009).
Examining some of the data, we see that the U.S. is not alone in seeing a decline in union density:
Country Density 1999 Density 2010
Canada 28.1% 27.5%
France 8.1% 7.6% (2008)
Germany 25.3% 18.6%
Italy 35.4% 35.1%
Japan 22.2% 18.4%
United Kingdom 30.1% 26.5%
United States 13.4% 11.4%
Australia 24.9% 18.0%
Finland 76.3% 70.0% (highest density in 2010)
Ireland 39.0% 30.7% (2009)
Sweden 80.6% 68.4% (highest density in 1999)
OECD Average 21.0% 18.1%
Source: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx, then click on “Labour,” “Trade Union,” and “Trade Union Density.”
The reasons for this general trend are in dispute, though globalization is one likely culprit. I'll have to leave that debate for another time.
For now, I simply want to emphasize how low the American unionization rate is, and how that bodes ill for the middle class. We are, of course, currently seeing an attack on public sector unions in many states, which threatens tens of thousands of middle class jobs and reduced pay and benefits for hundreds of thousands of workers.
To end on a more positive note, it's interesting that Canada, a country like the U.S. in many ways (in particular, economists would describe as both relatively “labor-scarce” by global standards, an issue I will discuss in more detail in future posts), has not seen the same sort of deterioration in union density that the U.S. has. Paul Krugman, in The Conscience of a Liberal, makes a great deal of this comparison to argue that union decline in the U.S. was not inevitable and could be reversed. I hope he's right.