Union membership plummeted last year to the lowest level since the 1930s as cash-strapped state and local governments shed workers and unions had difficulty organizing new members in the private sector despite signs of an improving economy.
Government figures released Wednesday showed union membership declined from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of the work force, another blow to a labor movement already stretched thin by battles in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states to ensure fairness for non-union workers.
In Indiana, where a new right-to-work law took effect last March, the state lost about 56,000 union members. The law prohibits unions from requiring workers to pay union fees, even if they benefit from a collective bargaining agreement. Michigan lawmakers approved a similar measure in December.
Nationally, overall membership fell by about 400,000 workers, to 14.4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half the loss, about 234,000, came from government workers, including teachers, firefighters and public administrators.
But unions also saw losses in the private sector even as the economy created 1.8 million new jobs in 2012. Private-sector membership rates fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent, a troubling sign for the future of organized labor, as job growth generally has taken place at non-union companies.
"To employers, it's going to look like the labor movement is ready for a knockout punch," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "You can't be a movement and get smaller."
Union membership was 13.2 percent in 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. Labor's ranks peaked in the 1950s, when about 1 of every 3 workers was in a union. By 1983, roughly 20 percent of U.S. workers were union members.
Losses in the public sector are hitting unions particularly hard because that has been one of the few areas where membership had grown over the past two decades. About 51 percent of union members work in government, where the rate of union membership is 37 percent, which is more than five times higher than in the private sector.
Until recently, there had been little resistance to unions organizing government workers. But that began to change when Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin signed a law in 2011 eliminating most union rights for government workers. The state lost about 46,000 union members last year, the vast majority in the public sector.
The recession that began in 2008 also led to much deeper cuts in state and local government than any previous recession, according to a report this month from the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany. Since August 2008, state government employment has declined by 135,000, while local government employment fell by 546,000.
Despite the steady membership decline, unions remain a potent political force because of the money they spend helping union-friendly candidates seeking public office. Unions spent more than $400 million during the 2012 election cycle to support President Barack Obama's re-election, keep a Democratic majority in the Senate and aid other state and local candidates.
But as more governors and state lawmakers target unions, labor leaders have been forced to spend more money fighting political skirmishes and less on organizing new members.
"Organizing is very expensive, and it gets fought now in the public sector as well as in the private sector," said Barry Hirsch, a labor economist at Georgia State University.
Dwindling membership means unions carry far less influence than they used to in setting a benchmark for wages and benefits that might be followed at non-union companies. Unions are already gearing up to defeat Republican governors in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where they fear more anti-union measures could crop up soon.
Union officials blame membership losses on the lingering effects of the recession, as well as GOP governors and state lawmakers who have sought to weaken union rights.
"Our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership, and in the process have also imperiled economic security and good, middle class jobs," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Another problem for unions is an aging membership that is not being replaced by younger members. By age, the union membership rate was highest among workers age 55 to 64 (14.9 percent) and lowest among those 16 to 24 (4.2 percent).
In New York, the state with the highest union density, nearly one-quarter of the workforce belonged to a union. North Carolina had the lowest at 2.9 percent.
Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members in 2012 had median weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members earned $742.