Union Membership on the Rise

January 17, 2019

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This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine) 

By Research & Education Department Director Joyce B. Robinson

According to figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, membership in labor unions rose by about a quarter million this year. In 2017, 7.2 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.6 million workers in the private sector. Although the union membership rate for private-sector workers increased by 0.1 percent, their unionization rate continued to be lower than that for public-sector workers (6.5 percent versus 34.4 percent).

Data Highlights:

  • Workers in protective service occupations and in education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rates (34.7 percent and 33.5 percent, respectively).
  • Men had a higher union membership rate (11.4 percent) than women (10.0 percent). However, the gap between their rates has narrowed since 1983 (the earliest year for which comparable data is available), when the rate for men was 24.7 percent and women was 14.6 percent.
  • Black workers had a higher union membership rate (12.6 percent) than workers who were White (10.6 percent), Asian (8.9 percent), or Hispanic (9.3 percent).
  • Union membership rates were highest among workers aged 45 to 64.
  • Union membership among full-time workers was higher (11.8 percent) compared to part-time workers (5.7 percent).
  • Median weekly earnings for non-union workers were 80 percent of earnings for union member workers ($829 versus $1,041).
  • New York continued to have the highest union membership rate (23.8 percent), while South Carolina continued to have the lowest (2.6 percent), though it is an increase from 1.6 percent in 2016.

Industry and Occupation of Union Members

  • Within the public sector, the union membership rate was highest in local government (40.1 percent), which employs many workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters.
  • Private-sector industries with high unionization rates included utilities (23.0 percent), transportation and warehousing (17.3 percent), telecommunications (16.1 percent), and construction (14.0 percent). Low unionization rates occurred in finance (1.1 percent), food services and drinking places (1.4 percent), and professional and technical services (1.7 percent).
  • Among occupational groups, the highest unionization rates were in protective service occupations (34.7 percent) and in education, training, and library occupations (33.5 percent). Unionization rates were lowest in sales and related occupations (3.2 percent); farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (3.4 percent); food preparation and serving related occupations (3.8 percent); and in computer and mathematical occupations (3.9 percent).

Union Membership by State

  • States in the East South Central and West South Central divisions had union membership rates below the national average, while states in the New England, Middle Atlantic, and Pacific divisions had rates above it. Union membership rates increased over the year in 25 states and the District of Columbia, decreased in 21 states, and were unchanged in 4 states.
  • Nine states had union membership rates below 5.0 percent, with South Carolina having the lowest rate (2.6 percent). The next lowest rates were in North Carolina (3.4 percent) and Utah (3.9 percent). Two states had union membership rates over 20.0 percent: New York (23.8 percent) and Hawaii (21.3 percent).
  • The largest numbers of union members lived in California and New York. Over half of the 14.8 million union members in the U.S. lived in seven states (California, 2.5 million; New York, 2.0 million; Illinois, 0.8 million; Michigan and Pennsylvania, 0.7 million each; and New Jersey and Ohio, 0.6 million each), though these states accounted for only about one-third of wage and salary employment nationally. 

Excerpts in this article are from the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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