BLS: Union Membership Slightly Up but Still Relatively Down

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members accounted for 12.4 percent of employed wage and salary workers in 2008, up from 12.1 percent a year earlier. In all, the number of workers belonging to a union rose by 428,000 to 16.1 million. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

BLS collected the data as part of the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of about 60,000 households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation's civilian non-institutional population age 16 and over.

Some highlights from the 2008 data are:

  • Government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than were private sector employees.
  • Workers in education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rate at 38.7 percent.
  • Black workers were more likely to be union members than were white, Asian, or Hispanic workers.
  • Among states, New York had the highest union membership rate (24.9 percent) and North Carolina had the lowest rate (3.5 percent).

The union membership rate for public sector workers (36.8 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private industry workers (7.6 percent). Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 42.2 percent. This group includes many workers in several heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Private sector industries with high unionization rates include transportation and utilities (22.2 percent), telecommunications (19.3 percent), and construction (15.6 percent). In 2008, unionization rates were relatively low in financial activities (1.8 percent) and professional and business services (2.1 percent).

Among occupational groups, education, training, and library occupations (38.7 percent) and protective service occupations (35.4 percent) had the highest unionization rates in 2008. Sales and related occupations (3.3 percent) and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (4.3 percent) had the lowest unionization rates.

The union membership rate was higher for men (13.4 percent) than for women (11.4 percent) in 2008. The gap between their rates has narrowed considerably since 1983, when the rate for men was about 10 percentage points higher than the rate for women. Between 1983 and 2008, the union membership rate for men declined by 11.3 percentage points, while the rate for women declined by 3.2 percentage points. By age, union membership rates were highest among workers 55 to 64 years old (16.6 percent) and 45 to 54 years old (16.0 percent). The lowest union membership rates occurred among those ages 16 to 24 (5.0 percent). Full-time workers were about twice as likely as part-time workers to be union members, 13.7 compared with 6.7 percent.

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