U.S. union membership dropped once again in 2012, both as a percent of the workforce and in absolute numbers. According to the latest annual report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union in 2012 — down from 11.8 percent in 2011. Union members were 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, and the percentage has declined just about every year since 2000.
The data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The survey found that there were 14,366,000 union members nationwide in 2012 (down from 14,764,000 the year before). Of the new total, roughly 7.3 million public sector workers were union members, compared with 7.0 million private sector workers.
Public sector workers were five times more likely to be unionized (35.9 percent) than private sector workers (6.6 percent.) And within the public sector, local government workers had the highest unionization rate, 41.7 percent. That includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters. Highly unionized private-sector industries included transportation and utilities (20.6 percent) and construction (13.2 percent).
- Black workers (13.4 percent) were more likely to be union members than white (11.1 percent), Asian (9.6 percent), or Hispanic (9.8 percent) workers.
- Union membership was highest among workers ages 55 to 64 (14.9 percent), and lowest among workers aged 16 to 24 (4.2 percent).
- Full-time workers were twice as likely to be union members as part-time workers, 12.5 percent compared with 6.0 percent.
Among the states, New York continued to be the most heavily unionized, with 23.2 percent of workers in a union, followed by Alaska (22.4 percent), Hawaii (21.6 percent), and Washington (18.5 percent). Oregon was the ninth most unionized at 15.7 percent, trailing Rhode Island (17.8), California (17.2), Michigan (16.6), and New Jersey (16.1). Least unionized was North Carolina, at 2.9 percent, followed by Arkansas (3.2 percent) and South Carolina (3.3 percent).
In three states, union membership dropped by more than 2 percentage points between 2011 and 2012: Indiana, Wisconsin, and Connecticut. Indiana, which passed a right-to-work law, dropped from 11.3 to 9.1 percent unionized. Wisconsin, which passed a law gutting public sector unionization, dropped from 13.3 to 11.2 percent. Connecticut actually added bargaining rights to home care workers in 2012, so its biggest-in-the-nation drop of 2.8 percentage points may be a fluke.
The BLS union membership report can be considered a pretty accurate depiction of trends at the national level, but state-level data can sometimes be misinterpreted because minor year-to-year fluctuations — particularly in less populous states — may not be statistically significant.*
Oregon’s union density, for example, was said to have fallen steeply, from 17.1 percent unionized in 2011 to 15.7 percent in 2012, with 30,000 union members lost in 2012 — after a gain of 25,000 union members in 2011. But the data for a state like Oregon, with 1.2 percent of the nation’s population, come from about 500 Oregon households. Because one person in the survey can represent about 2,000 individuals, just 15 survey responses would account for the 30,000 union members Oregon is said to have lost. That’s not to say Oregon DIDN’T lose that many union members; it’s just that BLS doesn’t publish “confidence intervals” for state-level unionization figures. State-level shifts could be considered more reliable if they hold up over time. Oregon’s percentage in the survey has fluctuated in the last 10 years, with a low of 13.8 percent in 2006 and a high of 17.1 percent in 2011.
[*For those who really want to know: Union membership data is collected as part of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households nationwide that obtains information on employment and unemployment among civilians aged 16 and over who are not in penal institutions, mental facilities, or homes for the aged. The union membership data comes from one-quarter of that CPS monthly sample, and doesn’t include the roughly 20 percent of workers who are unemployed or self-employed. In CPS, households are rotated in and out each month; participating households report for four months, stop for eight months, then report for four more months.]