The United States has a long history of labor unions. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886, which then had 1.4 million members. Labor unions from this age gave many benefits to their members, like
- Increased wages
- Shorter working hours
- Enhanced workplace safety.
Fast forward to the 1930s, and unions brought improvements like fair employment practices and vacation pay during the World War II-era in addition to the above benefits.
These were the eras when unions were the only hope for workers. In fact, the union membership rate in 1983, the first year for which the data is available, was 20.1%– every fifth worker was a paying member of a union. However, the trends are not the same anymore.
Let’s see what union membership trends look like now.
What are the recent trends in union membership?
The union membership rate in 2020 was 10.8%, which is an increase of 0.5% from 2019, as per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, the number of workers represented by the union came down to 14.3 million in 2020, down by 321,000 (2.2%) from 2019. The primary reason for this was the decline of 9.6 million (6.7%) in the total wage and salary employment among most nonunion members.
The COVID-19 pandemic played a huge role in this decline of union members, especially in the hospitality sector. The increase in the union membership rate reflects the decline in the total number of union members and the wage and salary employment.
Union membership trends by industry
Union membership in the private sector decreased by 428,000, while the public sector showed no significant change. However, the union membership rate in the public sector increased by 1.2% in 2020.
Within the public sector, the local government sector, which includes police officers, firefighters, teachers, etc., had the highest union membership rate of 41.7%. The union membership rate in the private sector increased by 0.1% to reach 6.3% in 2020. This was a result of the drop in the overall employment rate.
Let’s see what the union membership rates in the industries in the private sector looked like.
|Industry/Occupation||Union membership rate in 2020|
|Transportation and warehousing||17%|
|Education, training, and library occupations||35.9%|
|Industry/Occupation||Union membership rate in 2020|
|Food and drink services||1.2%|
|Professional and technical services||1.3%|
|Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations||2.6%|
|Sales and related occupations||3.2%|
|Food preparation and serving related occupations||3.4%|
Union membership trends by demographics
Union membership trends by gender
In 2020, the number of men among the union members decreased by 368,000, while the number of women was unchanged. However, the union membership rate for women increased by 0.8%, bringing the total to 10.5%, while among men, the increase was 0.2%, making it 11%.
Union membership trends by race and ethnicity
In terms of race and ethnicity, Black workers continued to have a higher union membership rate than White workers, Asian workers, and Hispanic workers.
The number of white union members decreased by 264,000, while the others did not show any significant change. The total wage and salary employment for the Black, Asian, and Hispanic groups saw a decline, especially among nonunion workers.
Let’s see how the numbers look:
|Race and ethnicity||Union membership rate|
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Union membership trends by age
In terms of age, the union membership rates are the highest among workers aged between 45 and 64.
Here’s what the data looks like for the other age groups:
Union membership trends by job type
The union membership rate for full-time workers was 11.8%, while it was 5.8% for part-time workers.
Union membership trends by education level
Union membership rates increased at all education levels. Among people with no bachelor’s degree, this rate increased by 0.8% to 11%. There was a significant decline in the actual number of members among high school graduates, but the membership rate in this group rose by 0.4%, leading it to a total of 10%. Among people with advanced degrees, the number of members(by 74,000) and the rates(by 0.2%, bringing it to 15.5%) increased.
Union membership trends by state
In 2020, 30 states and the District of Columbia had a union membership rate lower than the US average(10.5%), whereas 20 states were above it. Reports show that states with “right to work” laws have lower union membership rates than states that don’t have the law.
Over half of the US union members lived in these 7 states:
Union membership trends by earnings
Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $1440 in 2020. Meanwhile, the nonunion members had weekly earnings of $958.
This considerable difference is a reflection of factors like
- Collective bargaining agreement
- Variations in the distribution of union and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, firm size, and geographic region.
- Pandemic-related effects on the labor market.
TL;DR: Here are some other notable highlights from the 2020 union membership trends:
- While the union membership in the public sector is five times more than the private sector, the union members in the public sector are 7.2 million, while in the private sector, it is 7.1 million.
- Protective service, education, training, and library services saw the highest union membership rate at 35.9%.
- The vast gender gap is closing in union memberships with 11% men and 10.5% women in the industry. In 1983, this was 24.7% men and 14.6% women.
- Hawaii and New York continued to have the highest union membership rates (23.7% and 22%, respectively), and South Carolina and North Carolina continued to have the lowest union membership rates (2.9% and 3.1%, respectively). Nevada saw a decline in the union membership rate- 13.4% from 14.6%.
When was the peak of union membership?
The union membership rate in the United States is estimated to have peaked in 1954 at 35%. However, the total number of members peaked in 1979 and is estimated to be 20.1 million.
What are the main causes for the recent trends in union membership rates in the United States?
Many reasons have contributed to the union membership trends we saw, especially the decline in membership.
Here are the primary ones:
Global competition in traditionally unionized industries
Due to deregulation in industries like trucking, airline, auto manufacturing, etc., which are unionized, the competition among businesses has increased on a global scale. This globalization has led to large-scale layoffs and economic insecurity.
This has put a stop to the increase in wages and benefits among the union members.
Changes in the workforce demographics
Immigrant workers shy away from involving themselves in protests and groups of any kind due to fear of deportation. The changing trends in the workforce also plays a role. Women with children, part-time employees, etc. feel difficulty in dedicating time to unions.
The shift in the nature of work too, has become a factor. For example, careers are moving to white-collar jobs revolving around computers; and these industries were never a good target for unions.
Here is a guide to help you organize a union. It’s never too early to start 🙂
Federal employment law changes
There have been several changes in the federal employment laws over the years that focus on
- Combating employment discrimination,
- Establishing safe and healthy workplaces
- Providing benefits, and much more.
Establishing these fundamentals in workplaces has reduced the need for unions.
Lack of interest
With the decreasing number of union members over the decades, the current generation comes from families with no union members. The lack of a role model at home has resulted in the lack of knowledge and interest among the next-gen employees.
See how you can use technology to tap into this new generation.
The impact of pandemic and recessions
Recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic have led people to appreciate job roles and opportunities even more than before. People resonate with the business interests and prefer cooperating with the management than protesting against it.
The shift from manufacturing to service industries
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from the employment of 19.6 million people in 1979 to 12.8 million in 2019, the manufacturing industry has seen a huge drop. Since the strongest unions were in the manufacturing industry, this shift led to a decrease in the overall number of members.
It’s a no-brainer that decreasing numbers are a concern. Learning the union membership trends in detail and working towards increasing your union membership is a good first step to regain the lost or declining membership. Here’s a guide to help you get more workers on board.
- A look at union membership rates across industries in 2020
- News release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Economic news release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Union Membership Byte, 2021
- Labor unions in the United States