The nation's labor unions suffered sharp declines in membership last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wednesday, led by losses in the public sector as cash-strapped state and local governments laid off workers and -- in some cases -- limited collective bargaining rights.
The union membership rate fell from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of all workers, the lowest level since the 1930s.
Total membership fell by about 400,000 workers to 14.4 million. 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 expanded modestly. That rate of membership fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent, a troubling sign for the future of organized labor, as job growth has generally taken place at nonunion firms.
"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."
Unions have steadily lost members since their peak in the 1950s, when about one of every three workers was in a union. By 1983, roughly 20 percent of American workers were union members.
In recent years, the lingering effects of the recession, as well as efforts by Republican governors and state lawmakers to weaken union rights "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.
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.
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 ages 55 to 64 (14.9 percent) and lowest among those ages 16 to 24 (4.2 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.