Union membership rises, but rate at all-time low

Union membership rises, but rate at all-time low
© Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

The number of Americans who belong to a labor union rose by about a quarter of a million in 2017, though the overall percentage of the workforce represented by a union remained at an all-time low.

New figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday show 10.7 percent of American workers are members of a labor union, unchanged from a year before.

That share represents 14.8 million, up 262,000 from 2016. The share did not change despite the increase because the economy added so many new jobs over the course of the year.

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Since 1983, the first year in which the Bureau collected labor union data as part of its Current Population Survey, union membership has declined by almost half. That year, 20.1 percent of American workers were members of a union.

Today, just over a third of public-sector workers are union members, compared with just 6.5 percent of private sector workers. Public sector union membership has fallen by only two percentage points in the last 35 years, while private sector membership is down 10 points over the same period.

Unions and labor union opponents took very different messages from the annual government report. The AFL-CIO touted the quarter million new union members, while the pro-business Center for Union Facts spotlighted the decline in private-sector membership.

In a statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the power of union members is “on the rise.”

“Today’s data is more than numbers on a page, it’s a growing movement of working people that can’t be measured as easily,” Trumka said.

“The consistently low private-sector union membership rate is just another reminder of the disconnect between union officials and the employees they claim to represent,” said Luka Ladan, the Center for Union Facts’ communications director.

New York has the highest percentage of workers who belong to unions, at 23.8 percent. Hawaii also had a union membership rate above 20 percent, while more than 15 percent of workers in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington are union members.

South Carolina has the smallest percentage of union members, at 2.6 percent. North Carolina and Utah both have membership rates below 4 percent, BLS said.

Union members have significantly higher median incomes than full-time employees who are not members of unions. The median usual weekly earnings of a union member was $1,041 in 2017, compared with $829 for non-union members.