Ken Sagar, president of Iowa Federation of Labor AFL/CIO
Ken Sagar, president of Iowa Federation of Labor AFL/CIO

The percentage of U.S. workers who are union members continues to decline, according to a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

In 2012, 11.3 percent of workers were members of labor unions, down from 11.8 percent the previous year and 20.1 percent in 1983. Union membership also declined in Iowa, from 11.2 percent to 10.4 percent. Compared with other states, Iowa's union work force is about average.

Kent Sagar, president of Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, whose member unions represent about 50,000 workers, said, "It has just been a downward spiral since late '70s and early '80s."

Sagar said several things have influenced the decline, from President Ronald Reagan's stand against air traffic controllers union in the 1980s, which Sagar said "led to wholesale growth of a union avoidance industry," to the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, which led to manufacturing jobs going overseas. Also, he said, "deregulation has had a huge impact on union organization."

Now, Sagar said the threat is to public employee unions. Nationally, public-sector workers have a union membership rate (35.9 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.6 percent).

As state governments face budget crises, some have targeted union benefits in an effort to cut costs. "Look at what they're doing in Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio," said Sagar. Some states are worried about not being able to afford the pensions they promised workers. 

Read about what one mayor told a Des Moines group about dealing with government pensions.