Unions spent the first half of the 20th century transforming a massive industrial peasantry into the American middle class. In the second half of the 20th century, big business fought back by pressing for so-called “right-to-work” laws, which dilute the influence of labor unions and their power of collective bargaining.
The right-to-work campaign has been an unmitigated success for big business. Union membership plummets wherever these laws exist, which weakens the primary check on corporate excess. The results are clear. According to the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History, the dramatic decline in union membership that began in the early 1960s directly coincided with a meteoric rise in the share of income going to the top 10%.
Today, 27 states enforce right-to-work laws. These free-rider statutes extend the gains of union-won collective bargaining agreements to non-union workers who didn’t join or pay dues themselves. Predictably and as intended, many workers simply opt to piggyback instead of pitching in, which causes union membership and the influence of organized labor to dwindle. Big business prefers divided labor over organized labor for a reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly wage for union members in the United States is $1,144 vs. $958 for nonunion workers.
In 2020, union membership stood at about 10.8% of the U.S. workforce. That’s a little more than half of the 20.1% that existed when BLS began tracking it in 1983. Three decades before that, in 1953, more than one in three private-sector workers were union members. Today, that number has dwindled to just 6.3%.
Right-to-work legislation is decided at the state level, so the country’s remaining union members are not spread out evenly. To determine which states are the most unionized, Stacker looked at BLS data for 2020 (released in January 2021) and ranked each state according to its percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of labor unions.
Not surprisingly, the issue is politically polarized. Republicans overwhelmingly back right-to-work laws, and Democrats overwhelmingly side with their historic allies in labor. In fact, a red/blue map of the right-to-work states versus pro-union states looks nearly identical to that of the Electoral College.
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