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Union membership in Minnesota has been declining for decades. How are unions changing to stay relevant?

REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
The share of Minnesota employees who were members of unions has declined, from 23 percent in 1983 to 14 percent in 2016.

For a state with a major political party that includes “Labor” in its name, you might think Minnesota would be a haven for the union movement.

The DFL notwithstanding, that’s not necessarily the case: In the last three decades, the share of Minnesota employees who are members of a union has been on a slow, steady decline.

In 1983, 23 percent, or nearly a quarter of Minnesota employees were members of labor unions. Today, that number is down to about 14 percent, according to state-by-state breakdowns of Current Population Survey data from Unionstats, a website maintained by labor researchers at Georgia State and Trinity universities.

Percent of employees who were members of a labor union, 1983-2016
Over time, the share of Minnesota employees who were members of unions has declined, from 23 percent in 1983 to 14 percent in 2016. Because of a small sample size, estimates may fluctuate more for Minnesota than the U.S.
Source: Current Population Survey, compiled by Unionstats

Politically, unions remain an important force in the state. Their members and leaders are a mainstay at the Minnesota State Capitol, organizing days on the hill, appearing in marches, endorsing candidates and advocating for policies.

But if their numbers keep declining, how are unions changing to stay relevant?

Minnesota among the most unionized states

Unions have a long and storied history in Minnesota, from the emergence of the Knights of Labor through the Populist Movement and the founding of the Farmer-Labor Party, and have historically wielded a lot of influence in the state.

Today, Minnesota ranks 11th among U.S. states for share of unionized workers, behind some of its Midwest neighbors and several states in the Northeast and on the Pacific coast.

The highest union membership rates among U.S. states can be found in New York, where 23.6 percent of employed people are union members. The lowest rates can be found in South Carolina, at 1.6 percent.

Union membership rates tend to be higher or lower based on state labor laws, the mix of industries that dominate the economy and history of labor organization.

For example, New York’s union membership rates are so high because around 70 percent of the state’s public employees are union members (private employees’ rate is lower, but still higher than the national average), the New York Times reported in September. A post-recession rebound in heavily unionized construction and hotel industries in New York City has helped that city’s unionization rate rise for the last three years.

Many Southern states, including the Carolinas, don’t have histories of big, powerful labor unions, said Peter Rachleff, a founder and co-director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. Southern states were among the first to pass “right-to-work” legislation exempting workers whose jobs are covered by union protections from having to join the union or pay dues. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states and Guam have passed such laws.

Unlike those southern states, Minnesota has a legacy of influential unions, an economy that’s historically depended on industries dominated by organized labor, such as mining and manufacturing, and hasn’t passed right-to-work legislation.

Reasons for the decline

So what accounts for the decline in unions’ ranks in recent years?

Experts say there are two main factors: One is that automation and globalization have reduced employers’ reliance on workers in often-unionized industries. In Minnesota, the number of workers in private manufacturing as a share of overall employment has declined since the 1980s, from 20 percent in 1983 to about 16 percent in 2016, according to Unionstats.

Share of Minnesota workers in private manufacturing industry, 1983-2016
Source: Current Population Survey, compiled by Unionstats

As technology makes processes in these industries more efficient, these are industries that commonly fall prey to automation. They’re also industries that, in an increasingly global economy, are vulnerable to competition from other countries.

“It takes fewer people to work in modern manufacturing to produce the same amount of product in the steel industry or the paper industry,” said Monica Bielski Boris, an instructor in labor education service at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “There’s much more high-tech machinery and fewer people are required.”

Meanwhile, sectors that have grown or maintained their share of the workforce tend to be areas where workers are not unionized, such as retail and service jobs. Though some efforts to unionize workers in service and retail have been successful, they tend to be more difficult to organize in, largely because of high employee turnover.

Non-industrial employment in Minnesota
Non-industrial employment (including the information, financial activities, professional and business, education and health, leisure and hospitality, and other service industries), which, with some exceptions, includes industries that generally have lower rates of union membership, has grown as a share of overall non-farm employment in Minnesota in the last three decades.
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

The other reason for declining union membership, experts say, is that companies have made it more difficult for workers to organize.

Wal-Mart, for example, which is one of the country’s biggest private employers, has worked proactively to keep unions out of its stores for decades, the Atlantic reported. When a group of employees at a west metro-area Jimmy John’s were fired in 2011, which some alleged was in retaliation for attempting to organize.

Even in manufacturing, the share of workers in the industry who are union members has declined, from 22 percent in 1983 to about 10 percent last year.

Share of Minnesota private manufacturing workers in unions, 1983-2016
Source: Current Population Survey, compiled by Unionstats

“Success rates in organizing haven’t been what they used to be,” Bielski Boris said. “It’s a very difficult process (to unionize), and then if you have an employer who is not supportive and is launching a campaign against the unionization effort.”

In a 2014 paper that analyzed union election data, Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton University, wrote that “continuing deterioration in the union organizing environment has made organizing through the (National Labor Relations Board) representation election process more costly.”

Data from the National Labor Relations Board show that nationwide, the number of union representation elections has declined over time, while success rates for elections that are held has increased, indicating organizers are more focused on workplaces where they are very likely to succeed:

Source: "Union Organizing Decisions in a Deteriorating Environment: The Composition of Representation Elections and the Decline in Turnout," Henry Farber

Today, unions have become more choosey about where they try to organize, focusing on larger bargaining units where they have a better chance of winning. Though there are fewer representation elections held today, unions’ win rate has greatly increased, Farber wrote.

In Minnesota, unions membership rates got a big boost when public employees were granted the right to organize under the 1971 Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act. Today, public employees, including those in Education Minnesota, the teacher’s union that’s the largest in the state, make up a much larger share of union members than private employees (46 percent compared to 8 percent), and one that hasn’t seen the same kinds of declines over time.

Public and private sector union membership rates in Minnesota, 1983-2016
While the rate of union membership has remained relatively steady in Minnesota's public employment sector, its private employment sector has seen larger declines.
Source: Current Population Survey, compiled by Unionstats

Public employee unionization has brought more more women, people of color and more highly-educated workers into the organized labor landscape. Today in Minnesota, one third of workers with master’s degrees are in unions.

In 2015, Minnesota’s home health care workers unionized, adding more diverse workers — specifically, more women and minorities — to the state unions’ rosters.

Staying relevant

Rachleff said the changes and challenges unions face today reflect a fundamental restructuring in the way people work.

Today, job growth is happening in areas where employers are contracting out services like cleaning and and service industry jobs, Rachleff said, bringing about new challenges for unions:  “How do you get three parties to the bargaining table — the name-brand company, the anonymous contractor, and the workers? How do you negotiate contracts in that environment?”

Some of that work is falling to workers centers — which are not labor unions — such as the Greater Minnesota Worker Center and the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL). Founded in 2007, CTUL has helped custodial workers working in retail stores unionize and is also an active voice in the 15 Now campaign, which advocates for a $15 minimum wage. CTUL and the Greater Minnesota Worker Center are affiliates of the AFL-CIO.

When you look at union membership rates, “a lot of what you don’t see is some of the alternative organizing that’s going on,” said Chris Shields, the communications director for the AFL-CIO.

Where traditional organizing is becoming, in many cases, more difficult (though not without some successes), Rachleff says there are opportunities to change policy through the municipal legislative process via campaigns like Minneapolis and St. Paul’s new paid sick leave ordinances and the 15 Now campaign (unless the preemption bill that passed the House last week at the capitol passes and precludes those efforts). Minnesota labor unions have also been visible in movements like 15 Now.

“There’s a sense that some unions realize if it’s going to be legally difficult to organize, what else can (they) do?” Bielski Boris said.

Despite all these changes, Rachleff says pronouncements of the death of unions are premature.  But the facts remain that unions’ membership decline in Minnesota has been largely at the hands of automation, globalization, and a business climate that seeks to prevent workers from organizing more than in the past — things that don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

The question going forward will be how unions respond.

“There’s a sense of, in order to stay relevant and to make a difference that they need to think about how to innovate as organizations,” Bielski Boris said.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 03/08/2017 - 12:00 pm.

    The Conservative argument against unions…

    Conservatives tell us that everyone should be able to negotiate their own contract. In the end an employer with 100 employees potentially has to deal with 100 different contracts, different rates of pay, benefits, leave, sick time, etc. On the other hand they tell us that employers would find it too difficult to deal with municipalities who make rules concerning paid sick time and minimum wage laws.

    I find those to thing to be inconsistent. How can a company that deals with hundreds, maybe thousands of individual contracts not be able to deal with two or three different municipalities that they might do business in?

    Can we admit that these to arguments are at odds with each other, maybe even hypocritical?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/08/2017 - 02:22 pm.

      No Fuss

      Actually employment at will is preferred over binding contracts in my opinion.

      The company wants to keep good qualified hard working employees, so they treat those employees well.

      The employees want to have a job at a good supportive employer so they work hard.

      And if either of them are dissatisfied with the others performance, they can end the relationship and move onto other opportunities.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/08/2017 - 03:47 pm.

        How Idyllic!

        “And if either of them are dissatisfied with the others performance, they can end the relationship and move onto other opportunities.” Presumably, by riding their unicorns off to the Land of Rainbows.

        As a practical matter, labor mobility is an illusion. People work at lousy jobs because they have to. It may be the only job in their community, or it may be the only job they are qualified to get (and retraining is not a universal option, so never mind that). Perhaps they are mistreated, but paid enough to service student loan debt. An employer that is, on balance, not good may still pay generous medical benefits (personal experience with that one). “Other opportunities” don’t always exist, especially for the minimally educated, or the people in less-advantaged communities.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/08/2017 - 08:57 pm.

          Yes, employees with few qualifications do have fewer attractive opportunities.That is part of the charm of the system.. People are given large incentive to learn and improve their skills so that they can get better jobs.

          What again is the alternative… Ensure that employees are paid more than they are worth on the open market, ensure their jobs are secure no matter their effort / capabilities, ensure they make more as they age, etc.

          I like idyllic apparently

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/09/2017 - 09:50 am.

            “The Charm of the System”

            That system sounds the most charming to those who have little to fear from it.

            “What again is the alternative?” How about ensuring that all working people are treated with dignity, and are not commoditized (I hate the term “human resources”)?

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/09/2017 - 11:02 am.


              That is the delicious irony… It is the Unions who strive to commoditize employees.

              Employment at will means that a person is treated uniquely based on the their unique knowledge, skill, effort, performance, personality, etc. For better or worse, the individual controls these attributes and can strive to improve them.

              Where as Unions strive to say that Employee A and Employee B have the same education, experience, etc and therefore they should have the same wage, job security, benefits, etc…

              • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/09/2017 - 12:04 pm.

                What “Employment at Will” Means

                “Employment at will means that a person is treated uniquely based on the their unique knowledge, skill, effort, performance, personality, etc. For better or worse, the individual controls these attributes and can strive to improve them.” Perhaps. The real control in the employment at will relationship is with the employer, who can decide arbitrarily to hire or fire anyone he pleases (and if you try to tell me that employers will always strive to hire the best person, that is my derisive laughter you hear off in the distance).

                “That is the delicious irony… It is the Unions who strive to commoditize employees.” Again, perhaps. One could also say that it is a recognition of, and accommodation to, the realities of the modern workplace.

                • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/09/2017 - 02:18 pm.

                  Best Value

                  You are correct, they don’t always strive to hire the best… Just like we consumers don’t strive to buy the best car. They like we strive to hire the best value. (ie balancing cost, capabilities, experience, etc)

                  Employment at Will also means that we employees can keep looking for better opportunities and are free to quit our existing employer at anytime.

                  I often feel for older Teachers who are burnt out and highly compensated. The way tenure, steps and lanes work, they are somewhat trapped unless they are willing to take a large compensation reduction. For me that would be a terrible situation…

                  I would rather be paid what the market offers and able to change employers if I get tired of the job, the company, my boss, etc.

              • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/10/2017 - 10:00 am.

                A Collective Bargaining Agreement

                Does not force an employer to treat all employees the same. It specifies minimums. An employer is always free to reward some employees more.

                In the organized construction industry, foremen receive higher pay than journeymen (and women). Some only receive the premium pay when the contract mandates that. But some receive the premium all the time, even when they are not running a particular job site. Their employer can choose to continue the premium pay until that employee is again supervising their own job site.

                Similarly, some foremen are issued a company pick up truck, with the employer paying for all maintenance costs as well as gas, even though the foreman may not really “need” to have that. It’s way to reward a foreman who has proven to be more valuable than other foreman.

                • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/10/2017 - 12:29 pm.


                  Now those minimums are based on what factors?

                  Can the employer pay less if an employee just does not perform or communicate as well as others with same experience, education, etc?

                  Does this make sense?

    • Submitted by Michael Hess on 03/08/2017 - 07:59 pm.

      Not Really

      I think you are misrepresenting the issue. if you take your conservative approach as described, the employer is free to offer any terms of employment they want to prospective employees. The employees can take it or leave it. Companies, in general, offer consistent terms to all employees, which they choose, with some scale usually attributed to experience, seniority or increasing skill/qualifications – such as different salaries based on qualifications, or extra vacation if you have 20 yrs of experience vs a new hire.

      But importantly, it’s the choice of the employer to take on whatever level of complexity they see fit to be successful in their business,not to have multiple sets of rules imposed by different local governments. Likewise if business conditions change, they can change the terms of employment and employees are in a position to agree and stay, or disagree and leave.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/09/2017 - 11:07 am.


        I mean it is complicated enough when companies choose to do business in multiple States and even worse if they choose to operate in different countries.

        But the idea of deciding how to manage employee comp within a metro area would be very messy. Different wages when Bob does a job in Mpls. If a Graco employee transfers from Mpls to Rogers, do the take a pay cut? It definitely would complicate things.

  2. Submitted by John Appelen on 03/08/2017 - 12:10 pm.

    Here We Go Again

    “automation, globalization, and a business climate ”

    Why do folks work so hard to avoid saying the obvious?

    Unions declined in the Private economy because they increase the cost of products / services and most American Consumers do not want to pay more to support the higher wages, better benefits, etc of those employees?

    And the only reason the Public employee unions have grown is because there is pretty much no competition allowed in that sector and the tax payers don’t get to choose their service provider.

    I wonder what would happen if we told citizens that their tax bill would be reduced by 1% by making public employee unions illegal again. Would they vote for the tax reduction or not?

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 03/08/2017 - 05:52 pm.


      There’s an element of truth in saying that citizens would support making public unions illegal again to lower taxes. It worked in Wisconsin after all. The fallout from this on Wisconsin’s educational system and on children’s education remains to be seen.

      It’s far from obvious, however, that unions are entirely to blame for high prices on American goods any more than other costs of production or things that contribute nothing to the cost of production like high administrative salaries, executive compensation, marketing, advertising or corporate political contributions. Certainly unions are to blame if you want to believe the National Association of Manufacturers and other big business/anti-union lobbies. That’s what they’ve always argued about unions, even while their members continue to rake in record profits year after year. Getting rid of unions hasn’t brought lower prices.

      Where they have hasn’t improved the quality of American life. Americans have been shopping at stores of anti-union employers like Wal-Mart for 40 years now, making that family one of the richest in the country. Wal-Mart is also one of the largest importer of low price goods formerly made in the US but now made in China and other countries which also lack unions. These countries also often tolerate slave and child labor. Low prices on cheap imported goods hasn’t translated into improvement in American life. American towns have shriveled; so has the middle class. e-class. You can can plot the decline of the American middle-class with the decline of union power in the US.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/09/2017 - 08:49 am.


        Well I think this is correct… ” Americans have been shopping … anti-union ” Now why is this from your perspective?

        My 2002 Suburban came from the Janesville WI plant. My 2010 Mustang was built in Flat Rock Michigan. And both were designed and marketed in the USA.

        Now I could have bought “more reliable”, more fashionable, better performing, etc product, but I thought it was important to pay a little more and support American workers. I seem to be in the minority of American consumers… Why is that?

        In full disclosure: my FJR 1300 is a Yamaha… Harley does not make a sport touring bike. 🙂

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 03/09/2017 - 10:08 am.

    Maybe because they have no idea?

    You might be an exception. Most people shop for value and quality regardless of the product or service’s origin.

    It happens that Wal-Mart is one major retailer that has provided what many Americans consider good value and quality. That might be changing. Either way, few, if any, Americans who shop at Wal-Mart generally have any idea that Sam Walton and his heirs despised unions and have done everything in their power using their means to suppress unions in their own stores and in other business around the country. And as this article attests, they’ve been very successful.

    The virulent anti-union animus of the Walton family is fairly typical of the animus which drives the NAM and the ruling moneyed aristocracy in the United States today. It helps to explain how their propaganda which feeds the right-wing noise machine has also succeeded in turning millions of Americans against their own interests in emulating this anti-union bias.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/09/2017 - 10:55 am.

      Made in

      Why do you want to blame the companies and give us American consumers a free pass?

      The same person who complains about Walmart or the company that off shores jobs is often driving a vehicle made over seas or made in a right to work state. (ie weaker union shop) And almost all products have a “Made in ???” sticker, yet we keep buying foreign product.

      And as for vehicles, we have this excellent resource…

  4. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/09/2017 - 10:09 am.

    Do we have to again experience

    the reasons why Unions were established in the first place in order to understand their present-day need ?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/09/2017 - 02:34 pm.

      It Looks Like We Do

      A common refrain I hear is that unions are “no longer necessary.” What ever destructive and predatory practices of employers in the past led to unionization are gone now, thanks, and will never come back.

      Apparently, avarice has been bred out of us. Or, has been bred out of employers–employees (especially those rapacious parasites working for the government) are the unique group motivated solely by their self-interest.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/09/2017 - 05:31 pm.


        Do you really think that all of the laws they helped create will disappear if the Unions lose their power?

        Or with all of the lawyers who are looking for good cases with potentially large payouts.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/10/2017 - 11:12 am.

          Yes, Really

          For someone who says he believes in capitalism, you seem to bear a lot of resentment towards certain types (teachers, now lawyers) who seek to maximize their income through perfectly lawful means.

          Will the laws disappear? Perhaps not, although their continued reach and development will, at best, be stuck where they are. As the workplace changes, there will be less incentive to adapt the rules and policies towards the new realities. At worst, with a reactionary, anti-worker regime (every time a certain President tells me how much he loves the American worker, I look at my shoes to see what I stepped in), a lot of these protections will be rolled back. Weak enforcement mechanisms will embolden the worst employers.

          The dream of certain entrepreneurial types to run their businesses with no humans except scantily clad models in his commercials will be a reality.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/10/2017 - 12:23 pm.

            Guilty as charged, I think many lawyers harm our society in the hunt for easy money. And hopefully we will change the tort system in some way to discourage this behavior. Here is one example.

            As for Teachers maximizing their rewards via through Unions and the Current Laws, more power to them. I will just keep pushing to change the laws to put the kids first instead of the adults.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2017 - 11:07 am.

              “Easy” Money?

              As one who once worked in personal injury law, I can tell you that the chump who goes into that field expecting “easy money” is going to be very, very disappointed.

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/13/2017 - 04:19 pm.


                I knew a guy who couldn’t make a good living as a Mortgage Broker, he figured it was because he was too truthful and ethical… Maybe that was the issue…

  5. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/16/2017 - 10:46 am.

    Relevance through service.

    Unions would do well to serve the members they have, and spend less energy in attempting to organize the members they don’t have.

    In my days of labor union membership, I experienced a union that was more concerned with themselves than with the employees that paid them. Twice I needed a leave-of-absence, twice they agreed to it and assured me it was taken care of, and twice it never happened. Thus, I paid new member initiation three times. To whom do you complain? The employer has no interest in your problems with the union nor does the union.

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