Many of the nation’s largest unions lost significant membership in 2012, according to annual financial disclosure reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Bloomberg/BNA’s Daily Labor Report has reported. The 2012 reports show the following:  

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The biggest losses were sustained by the NEA, just shy of 100,000 members. The smaller AFT lost about 25,000 members. The losses by these educator unions likely reflect the crisis in public education funding. Similarly, AFSCME (representing mainly public sector employees) lost 37,000 members (about 2.5%) in 2012.  Given the budgetary drawback in public employment, this reduction is not surprising. 

The SEIU – an organizing powerhouse recently – took its first membership hit in years, down 45,000, likely stemming from job losses in the health care and building services industries. 

Food industry union UFCW reported a 13,000 membership loss, continuing a decline that began in 2002. UFCW complained that several unionized chains closed stores or downsized.  

The Machinists Union blamed its losses on the globalization of manufacturing – something it can hardly control. The Laborers Union similarly faulted the recession’s lingering effects on the construction industry. However, LIUNA has lost 269,000 members or 32% since 2003, perhaps reflecting a downward trend overall. 

Down, but Definitely Not Out

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – representing electricians and manufacturing employees – added almost 5,000 members. It credits this gain to a renewed vigor in organizing. The United Steelworkers (nowadays, a collection of smaller unions in an array of industries:  from metals and chemicals to paper and pharmaceuticals, among others) increased membership by more than 7,000 members. The United Auto Workers, benefiting from a rebound in the auto industry, also had a modest increase in membership.  

While unions nationally have declined dramatically in the last 60 years, the downward trend has slowed. As employment levels increase, union membership may rise, too, despite softness in the job market from the recession.  

Unions have become smarter about where they choose to organize – looking for workplaces with employee issues that can be exploited. Therefore, employers should not assume “it can’t happen here.” Complacency means vulnerability to union organizing.