Study: U.S. Union Membership Rose in 2008

Buoyed by a rising tide in California in general and Southern California in particular, U.S. unionization levels rose this year, defying a decades-long trend of decline, according to a report by UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

"The State of the Unions in 2008: A Profile of Union Membership in Los Angeles, California and the Nation" shows unionization rates nationwide rising half a percentage point over the 2007 level, to 12.6 percent of all U.S. civilian workers in 2008. The rate rose one-tenth of a percentage point between 2006 and 2007. Prior to that, the last time U.S. unionization rates registered an increase was in 1979.

"This is good news for organized labor," said Ruth Milkman, lead author of the report and outgoing director of the UCLA labor institute. "It shows that despite an extremely hostile environment, unions can grow."

Milkman and UCLA sociology graduate student Bongoh Kye analyzed U.S. Current Population Survey data on union membership for California, Los Angeles and the nation. They report unionization rates by race, immigration status, gender, age and education for the first six months of 2008. This year's report and earlier such studies of unionization data going back to 1996 are available at www.irle.ucla.edu/research/unionmembership.html.

According to the report, in the first half of 2008, the number of U.S. workers on the membership rolls of labor unions increased by 583,300 over the 2007 average.

Fueling the nationwide increase was the recent growth in unionization in California, which currently accounts for 16 percent of all the nation's union members, more than any other state. California's unionization rate in 2008 is 17.8 percent, up from 16.7 percent in 2007 and 15.7 percent in 2006.

The Los Angeles metro area, which includes Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, helped drive California's union growth. Nearly half of California's 2,633,600 union members -- or 1,227,600 workers -- live in the Los Angeles metro area, according to the UCLA study, which is released annually on Labor Day. Despite being perceived historically as anti-union, Los Angeles and its surrounding metro area have recently seen increases in unionization rates, which rose to 17 percent in 2008 from 15.9 percent in 2007 and 15.2 percent in 2006.

"In a very real way, Los Angeles and California continue to serve as strong growth engines for organized labor nationally," said Milkman, a UCLA professor of sociology. "The labor movement here is in much better shape than in much of the rest of the country. If this year's nationwide increase proves to be a lasting trend, historians will look back and see the leading edge of that growth here in the West."

The region's relatively high unionization rates are in keeping with its high level of public-sector unionization, as well as the fact that the sector in which unionization has declined most sharply nationally -- manufacturing -- has historically been less important to the region's economy than was the case in other parts of the nation, the report states.

While the public sector continues to account for the largest share of unionized workers overall, the study found an unexpected uptick in private-sector unionization in all three geographical jurisdictions. Although the increase in the state and nation was quite a bit smaller, Los Angeles' private-sector unionization rate increased from 8.8 percent in 2007 to 10 percent today.

"One component of this growth is recent union organizing, like the Service Employees International Union's successful security officer campaign here in L.A., but the region's unionization rates are affected by many other factors," Milkman noted. "If jobs are lost in nonunion sectors due to an economic downturn, as we've seen recently in residential construction, for example, that can lead to an increase in the unionization rate, if other things are stable."

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