February 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 3

U.S. union ranks grow despite tough economy

Union membership in the United States rose from 12.1 percent to 12.4 percent last year, according to an annual survey released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of all workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, including those who choose not to be union members, also grew in 2008, from 13.3 percent to 13.7 percent, bringing an additional 518,000 workers under union contracts in 2008.

Overall, the number of workers belonging to a union last year rose 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 workers carrying union cards.

“This growth is remarkable given the overall decline in employment in 2008 (a loss of 900,000 jobs in the nonunion sector),” said Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute. “This is also the first time in the 30 years of this data series that union density rose two years in a row.

In Oregon, union membership grew by 32,000 — to 259,000, or 16.6 percent of the workforce. Another 13,000 workers were represented by a union.

Washington State remains ranked No. 4 in the nation in terms of union density, with the state’s 578,000 members accounting for 19.8 percent of the overall workforce. Membership actually slipped by 1,000 from a year ago. However, the number of workers represented by a union increased from 616,000 to 626,000 (21.5 percent of the workforce).

The BLS survey also reported on the union advantage workers receive on payday. In 2008, full-time union workers earned a median weekly salary of $886 while nonunion workers were paid 28 percent less per week — $691.

Union growth was broadly shared across demographic lines and occupations. Growth was strongest in the public sector, among Hispanics, and in Western states.

The highest shares of unionization by age were among workers aged 55-64 and 45-54 (nearly 17 percent), while the lowest share (5 percent) was among workers aged 16-2.

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