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Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that union membership numbers remain consistent in 2015

Kris LaGrange's picture
Jan 28, 2016

Some of you may have heard of Jobs with Justice, today they tweeted out a report from  Cherrie Bucknor from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which promotes democratic debate on economic and social issues that affect people's lives. I guess you could say that they are the think tank of the left. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released some data on union density and below is Cherrie's analysis of that data. Nice work to all the good people over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

According to data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the share of the U.S. workforce that is a member of a union remained unchanged at 11.1 percent in 2015 (see Table 1). The union membership rate has been declining steadily since at least the early 1980s, when directly comparable data became available (see Figure 1).

The total number of union members increased by about 219,000 members in 2015, but this increase did not keep pace with overall job growth of 2.3 million, so the union membership rate remained flat (see Table 2).

Public and Private Sector

After one year of rising public-sector union membership, the public-sector membership rate fell by 0.5 percentage point to 35.2 percent in 2015. The number of public-sector union members rose by 23,000 and total public-sector employment increased by 388,000 workers. Meanwhile, in the private sector, the union membership rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 6.7 percent, even though the number of private-sector union members increased by 195,000 members. This was due to the fact that overall job growth in the private sector (up about 1.9 million) outpaced union growth in the private sector.

Union membership remains higher in the private sector than the public sector, with 7.6 million private-sector union members and 7.2 million public-sector union members.

Figure 2 shows that the union membership rate in the public sector has remained relatively stable since the early 1980s, and the union membership rate in the private sector has declined steadily over the same period.


Historically, workers in manufacturing have been more likely than the average worker to be a union member (see Figure 1). However, since the mid-2000s, this has no longer been the case. In 2015, workers in manufacturing were less likely (9.4 percent) than the average worker (11.1 percent) to be a union member. This represents a decline of 0.3 percentage point from 2014.


The union membership rate for women increased 0.1 percentage point to 10.6 percent, while the rate for men declined 0.2 percentage point to 11.5 percent. The total number of union members increased 195,000 for women and increased 24,000 for men. These net changes have slightly narrowed the gender gap in union membership rates. This convergence has occurred because the membership rate has fallen more slowly for women than it has for men (see Figure 3).


Union membership also varies by age. With the exception of the 65 and older group, unionization rates increase with age. In 2015, the union membership rate of workers ages 16 to 24 was 4.4 percent (down 0.1 percentage point). Union membership rates are higher for 25-to-34 year-olds at 9.7 percent, and continue to rise along the age distribution for 35-to-44 year-olds (12.3 percent), 45-to-54 year olds (13.6 percent), and 55-to-64 year-olds (14.3 percent). Union membership rates then fall to 9.5 percent for workers ages 65 and older.

Union membership rates have been in decline for almost all age groups since the early 1980s. The one exception is the unionization rate of workers 65 and older, which has increased gradually in the 2000s (see Figure 4).

Race and Ethnicity

As has been the case for decades, black workers remain the racial group most likely to be union members (13.6 percent, up 0.4 percentage point from 2014). About 10.8 percent of white workers were members of unions (unchanged), and 9.8 percent of Asian workers (excluding Pacific Islanders) were union members. Latinos were the group with the lowest unionization rate (9.4 percent, up 0.2 percentage point).

Figure 5 shows union membership rates from 1989 to 2015 using a different, but consistent measure of race and ethnicity.[1] Unionization rates for all races have declined, and the gap between blacks and the other groups has narrowed considerably over this time.


Although the BLS Union Membership report does not publish union membership rates by education level, we have calculated these rates using the underlying CPS data. The data show that union membership rates increase as education level increases. In 2015, workers with less than a high school degree had a union membership rate of 5.4 percent (down 0.1 percentage point). Workers with a high school degree (10.2 percent), some college but no degree (10.9 percent), and a bachelor’s degree (10.9 percent) had unionization rates that were roughly twice that of workers with less than a high school degree. Workers with advanced degrees were the most likely to be union members (16.9 percent).

Since the early 1980s, union membership rates have declined sharply for those workers with less than a high school degree (see Figure 6). This group of workers went from being one of the most unionized in 1983 to the least unionized in 2015. Workers with advanced degrees have seen their unionization rate decline much more slowly, significantly widening the gap between them and their less educated peers.


Using the underlying CPS data, we have calculated the unionization rates of native- and foreign-born workers going back to 1994. Following a long-term trend, U.S.-born workers (11.5 percent) were more likely than foreign-born workers (8.9 percent) to be union members in 2015 (see Figure 7).


In 2015, the five states with the highest union membership rates were: New York (24.7 percent), Hawaii (20.4 percent), Alaska (19.6 percent), Connecticut (17.0 percent), and Washington (16.8 percent). The five states with the lowest union membership rates were: South Carolina (2.1 percent), North Carolina (3.0 percent), Utah (3.9 percent), Georgia (4.0 percent), and Texas (4.5 percent) (see Table 3).

The five states with the most union members were: California (2.5 million), New York (2.0 million), Illinois (847,000), Pennsylvania (747,000), and Michigan (621,000). The five states with the fewest union members were: Wyoming and North Dakota (tied at 19,000), South Dakota (22,000), the District of Columbia (35,000), and Vermont (36,000) (see Table 3).


[1] The BLS racial and ethnic categories are overlapping, with Latinos appearing in the white, black, and Asian categories as well as in the separate Latino category. The categories in Figure 5, however, are mutually exclusive. Latinos are not included in the white, black, or Asian categories and are counted only in the Latino category; the Asian category in Figure 5 (but not in the BLS data) also includes Pacific Islanders.


Cherrie Bucknor (@CherrieBucknor) is a Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research

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