Labor unions are the biggest earners for American workers, according to a new survey from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), but their membership and membership dues have dropped significantly since the recession hit.
The IPS survey found that the top 20 unionized labor members earned $2.6 million last year, down from $3.2 million in 2012.
That drop in membership dues, the study said, is largely due to a combination of “staggered and declining dues” and the increasing importance of unions to the lives of workers.
This is the first time that unions have taken on a greater share of the labor pie, IPS president Mark Perry said in a statement.
While the rise in union membership has come on the heels of a decline in labor’s share of income, the drop in dues may be the most significant change in labor as a whole.
Perry noted that union dues dropped by about 7 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, the year the recession ended.
“These findings, combined with the decline in union-affiliated membership, may signal that union members are seeking out more direct action, and not just a paycheck,” he said.
In recent years, unions have been increasing their efforts to influence the lives and decisions of workers through their political and legal advocacy.
Since the 2009 financial crisis, labor has shifted its focus from its core political goals to expanding economic security and improving working conditions.
Membership in unions has been declining over the past decade.
Last year, unions represented a smaller share of workers than in 2012, but the decline is partly due to the growing number of union workers, and more members are now working for a single union.
At the same time, unions continue to face increased competition from new, non-union companies.
According to the National Federation of Independent Business, the number of non-profit, non–union organizations in the United States fell by 8.7 percent between 2013 and 2016, with fewer than 4,000 organizations in 2014.
Despite the recent decline, Perry said that unions are still “the largest economic force in the country.”
“They are the economic engines of our economy,” he continued.
“They have the most powerful bargaining power and are the ones who are going to make decisions about where we are going as a country.”
The IPS study, however, found that unions’ influence on the economy has decreased, not only in terms of memberships but also their ability to influence companies’ policies.
Unions now make up just 1.7 percentage points of the private-sector workforce, down 6 percentage points since 2011, the IPS study said.
The study also found that union membership, particularly among older workers, has been dropping since the 2008 recession.
For instance, in 2016, only 27 percent of workers age 55 to 64 had a union, compared to 62 percent in 2013, the report said.
The drop in union membership is a trend that could continue, Perry added.
During the last recession, unions helped keep businesses afloat and the economy growing, he said, but union members have been unable to do so.
There is a lack of “common sense” about the nature of unions, Perry continued.
“When you think about it, union members in this country are the people that are actually putting their livelihoods on the line every single day,” he concluded.
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