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Union Membership Stagnant in 2018

Feb. 6, 2019
In spite of some high-profile successes, unions can’t seem to gain traction.

Looking at news reports about major union organizing efforts over the past year you would think that unions were moving from strength to strength. The truth is that the percentage of private sector union-represented workers dropped from 6.5% in 2017 to 6.4% in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions totaled 14.7 million in 2018 and was little changed from 2017. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1% and the U.S. boasted 17.7 million union workers.

“The 2018 BLS data on the rate of union membership reflect nothing more than the status quo—a tiny fraction of American workers in the private sector, and a minority overall, have chosen to become members of a union,” observe attorneys Howard Bloom, Philip Rosen and Jonathan Spitzthe of the law firm of Jackson Lewis. “Nevertheless, both unionized and union-free employers should be aware of local, industry, occupation and other union membership trends.”

In fact, another way to look at last year’s numbers is to take into account all of the Obama-era union-friendly changes in labor laws at both the federal and state levels. With all of those advantageous and several high-profile organizing campaigns it could be seen as the unions strenuously struggling to stay even and not fall much more behind in total membership.

Cited by BLS as highlights mined from the 2018 data:

● The union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9%) continued to be more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.4%).

● The highest unionization rates were among workers in protective service occupations and in education, training and library occupations.

● Men continued to have a higher union membership rate (11.1%) than women (9.9%).

● Black workers remained more likely to be union members than white, Asian, or Hispanic workers.

● Nonunion workers were found to have median weekly earnings that were 82% of earnings for workers who were union members ($860 versus $1,051). However, BLS admitted that the comparisons of earnings are on a broad level and do not control for many factors that can be important in explaining earnings differences.

● Among states, Hawaii and New York had the highest union membership rates, while North Carolina and South Carolina had the lowest.

Public Versus Private

Continuing another trend seen for years, unions play a stronger role in the public sector than in private industry, although more workers are employed by businesses than governments. In 2018, 7.2 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.6 million workers in the private sector. Union membership rates for both public-sector and private-sector workers edged down in 2018.

The unionization rate in the private sector (6.4%) remained substantially below that for public-sector workers (33.9%). Within the public sector, the union membership rate was highest in local government (40.3%), which employs many workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as police officers, firefighters and teachers.

Private-sector industries with high unionization rates included utilities (20.1%), transportation and warehousing (16.7%), and telecommunications (15.4%). Low unionization rates occurred in finance (1.3%), food services and drinking places (1.3%), and professional and technical services (1.5%).

Among occupational groups, the highest unionization participation in 2018 was in protective service occupations (33.9%) and in education, training and library occupations (33.8%). Unionization rates were lowest in farming, fishing and forestry occupations (2.4%); sales and related occupations (3.3%); computer and mathematical occupations (3.7%); and in food preparation and serving related occupations (3.9%).

In 2018, the union membership rate continued to be higher for men (11.1%) than for women (9.9%). BLS reported that the gap between the male-female rates has narrowed considerably since 1983 (the earliest year for which comparable data are available), when rates for men and women were 24.7% and 14.6%, respectively.

Among major racial and ethnic groups, black workers continued to have a higher union membership rate in 2018 (12.5%) than workers who were white (10.4%), Asian (8.4%) or Hispanic (9.1%).

A clue as to one driver of union decline is that union membership rates continued to be highest among workers ages 45 to 64. BLS said that 12.8% of workers ages 45 to 54 and 13.3% of those ages 55 to 64 were union members last year. In addition, in 2018, the union membership rate for full-time workers (11.6%) was about twice the rate for part-time workers (5.4%).

When it comes to the breakdown by state, in 2018, 29 states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below that of the U.S. average of 10.5%, while 20 states had rates above it and one state had the same rate. All states in both the East South Central and West South Central divisions had union membership rates below the national average, while all states in both the Middle Atlantic and Pacific divisions had rates above it.

Eight states had union membership rates below 5.0% in 2018. North Carolina and South Carolina had the lowest rate (2.7% each). The next lowest rates were in Utah (4.1%) and Texas and Virginia (4.3% each). Two states had union membership rates over 20.0% in 2018: Hawaii (23.1%) and New York (22.3%).

The largest numbers of union members lived in California (2.4 million) and New York (1.9 million). Over half of the 14.7 million union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states (California, 2.4 million; New York, 1.9 million; Illinois, 0.8 million; Pennsylvania, 0.7 million; and Michigan, Ohio and Washington, 0.6 million each), although these states accounted for only about one-third of wage and salary employment nationally.

Keep some of these numbers in mind as we see how much the unions can achieve this year given recent legal changes. Last year’s California Supreme Court decision virtually wiping out independent contractors in that state is bound to have a measurable impact in the future. So too is the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ending contractual arbitration for interstate truck owner-operators and opening the way for class lawsuits claiming the drivers are misclassified employees.

As the Jackson Lewis attorneys said, it is vitally important for employers to keep up with developments in this particular arena.

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