Unions drop back to 10.3% of workforce


Recent polls show union approval at the highest level in 50 years, but that hasn’t stopped continued decline in union membership, according to the latest estimates of union membership by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

Last year union membership dropped 241,000—to 14.0 million—BLS said in an annual report released Jan. 20. And as a percentage of the workforce, union membership returned to its 2019 low: 10.3% overall. In 1983, when BLS started collecting the data with the same methods, 20.1% of American workers were union members, and there were 17.7 million union members.

The pandemic played a role in how big the drop in union membership was as a share of the workforce: 0.5%. In 2020, the percentage of workers who are union members actually rose 0.5%, because employment dropped significantly in mostly non-union workplaces like restaurants and entertainment venues. The year 2021 saw employment bounce back in those sectors.

Unions are strongest in the public sector, representing 33.9% of public sector workers in 2021. But as a percent of the private sector workforce, union membership reached a record low last year: 6.1%. Of the 14 million union members, almost exactly half are in the public sector and half in the private sector.

Union membership rates are higher among men (10.6%) than women (9.9%), and higher among older workers than young (13.1% among workers 45 to 54, compared to 4.2% among workers 16 to 24.) Black workers are the most likely to be in a union (11.5%) compared to White workers (10.3%), Hispanic workers  (9.0%) and Asian workers (7.7%).

Notwithstanding the decline in numbers, union members continue to out-earn nonunion workers: On average, nonunion workers earned just 83% of what union members earned, BLS reported.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report on the percentage of the workforce that’s union-represented comes from data collected in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. It’s drawn from a statistical sample that’s pretty reliable at the national level but less reliable at the state level, especially for smaller states like Oregon. Because of that it’s best to take state-level year-to-year fluctuations with a grain of salt. With that caveat in mind, here are the most and least unionized states in 2021, according to BLS:

  • #1 Hawaii  22.4%
  • #2 New York  22.2%
  • #3 Washington  19.0%
  • #4 Oregon  17.8%
  • #5 New Jersey  16.2%
  • #44 Idaho  4.7% 
  • #46 Arkansas  3.9%
  • #47 Texas  3.8%
  • #48 Utah  3.5%
  • #49 North Carolina  2.6%
  • #50 South Carolina  1.7%


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