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While the number of people who are members of labor unions has been on the decline for years, it is important to remember the contributions these organizations have made to improving conditions on the job for millions of workers over time.

Unions arose from a proliferation of businesses that demanded much and offered little in return to their workers. Sweat shops, child labor and poor pay were among the worst conditions that some workers had to endure until they organized and fought for their rights.

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Safe working conditions, health care and retirement benefits for employees also helped drive union participation.

But just as there were companies that wanted only to take advantage of their employees, so too were there more forward thinking companies that saw taking care of workers as an investment. Many of these companies adopted the policies that unions fought for. In other cases, it took state or federal laws to prompt change.

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Ultimately, however, all workers today benefit from those fights initiated by the first labor unions.

Today, union participation is on the decline, partly because of those laws that have been enacted over the years, as well as more companies making it their mission to treat their employees fairly. But unions have also gotten a bad rap. During the recession years, as governments were looking to cut expenses, public employee unions came under fierce fire. Lucrative pension plans were causing a drain on many state and local budgets, and several high-profile battles in state legislatures over unions, collective bargaining and limiting union power were fought.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions was 11.3 percent. Compare that to 1983, when the agency says union membership was at 20.1 percent.

The 20.1 percent represented 17.7 million workers. The 11.3 percent from 2013 represents about 14.5 million.

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Of those in 2013 who were union members, 35.3 percent were public-sector workers. That's more than five times higher than the 6.7 percent membership of private-sector workers, the Bureau notes.

Within the public sector, the Bureau notes, union membership was highest for local government (40.8 percent), which includes employees in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters.

Over the years, unions have had a tremendous impact on working conditions, not only for those who are members, but for all workers. That doesn't mean that every union demand should be met without careful analysis, but it does mean that we should not forget those who walked the picket lines or lost their jobs over the years in the fight for better working conditions.

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