State Watch

Union membership hits new low

Associated Press/Seth Wenig

Just about 1 in 10 American workers belonged to a labor union last year as the long-term decline in union membership continued even through a pandemic that saw record worker actions and organizing drives.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said Thursday that 14 million workers were members of unions, down almost a quarter of a million from the year before.

The share of workers represented by unions stands at 10.3 percent, equal to 2019, when that measure hit its lowest rate since the Bureau first began surveying worker union rates in 1983. That share jumped briefly to 10.8 percent in 2020, an increase the Bureau attributed to the steep drop-off in non-union workers at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The temporary increase was an aberration of a nearly four-decade trend of declining union enrollment. In 1983, 17.7 million Americans were members of a labor union, and 20.5 million were represented by a union, even if they did not pay membership dues.

Those numbers have fallen steadily, if not uniformly, over the last two generations, even as the number of American workers has increased substantially. Today, there are about 50 million more workers in the American economy than there were in 1983, and 3 million fewer union members.

The latest yearly decrease in membership comes against the backdrop of high-profile union organizing drives, from a successful campaign at Starbucks outlets in New York to an unsuccessful effort at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, where workers will vote on a new unionization proposal next month.

Among the industries with a growing share of union membership is journalism, where 33 workplaces voted last year to organize with labor unions, according to Poynter, the media industry news outlet. In 2021, employees at Politico, Forbes, The Atlantic and Insider all joined NewsGuild, while journalists at MSNBC voted to organize with the Writers Guild of America East.

Public sector workers are more than five times as likely to be members of a union than private sector employees, the Bureau found. Just 6 percent of private sector workers are members of a union, compared with one-third of government workers. Teachers and law enforcement or protective employees were the most likely to be union members.

Union members still earn higher wages than their non-union counterparts, the BLS data show. The typical union worker earns $1,169 a week, while the median non-union worker earns 83 percent of that figure, $975 a week.

Blue states are still most likely to have the highest share of union members, after decades in which Republican legislators and governors have advanced right-to-work legislation and other measures aimed at dampening the political power of organized labor.

More than 1 in 5 workers in Hawaii and New York are members of labor unions, and more than 17 percent of workers in Alaska, Rhode Island and Washington state have their union cards. Alaska, a state controlled by Republicans, has an economy dominated by an oil and gas sector in which union membership is disproportionately high.

Among the states with the lowest unionization rates are Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia, where fewer than 1 in 20 workers are members of unions. Those states all have more union members than South Carolina, where only 2.9 percent of workers are in a union.

Tags Labor Trade unions Trade unions in the United States

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