Unions' Share of U.S. Workforce Shrank in 2018

By Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C.

January 25, 2019

According to a poll released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the percentage of U.S. workers over the age of 16 who are union members dipped from 10.7% to 10.5% in 2018. The actual number of union members decreased from 14,817,000 to 14,744,000, even while the workforce grew by about 2.2 million jobs overall. There are many interesting aspects to and surprises within the BLS's report and other studies on unionization.  
The drop in union membership is a bit of a surprise, as labor grew its membership rolls in the previous year by the biggest jump in more than a decade, including notable growth among employees ages 16-34. Public opinion was broadly favorable to unions, according to an August 2018 Gallup poll. Democrats, who tend to be supported by labor, were more successful, on a national level, than Republicans in November 2018. Yet, unions weren't able to convert this momentum into membership gains in 2018.
Demographically, labor's biggest loss came among men ages 45-54 years old. Union membership declined by over 100,000 among this group, from 2 million to 1.9 million, translating to a decline in union membership rate from 13.9% to 13.3%. In 2008, 17.4% (2.6 million) of male workers ages 45-54 years old were union members.  
Interestingly, unions largely retained or grew their membership ranks among women. From 2017 to 2018, the number of women who were members of unions grew from 6,651,000 to 6,662,000, which, with the growth of the workforce, translated to only a 0.1% decline in membership rates for women overall. Unions also grew their ranks of African American women: from 1,109,000 (11.7%) to 1,147,000 (11.9%). This is especially remarkable when you consider that every other race/sex demographic group experienced reductions in or, at best, broke even on their year-over-year membership rates.
Unions also found some fertile soil for growth in the Deep South. In Alabama, union membership leapt from 138,000 (7.4% of workers) to 180,000 (9.2% of workers). In Georgia, union membership grew from 173,000 (4.0% of workers) to 201,000 (4.5% of workers). In Louisiana, union membership climbed from 78,000 (4.4%) to 89,000 (5.5%). Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee generally held steady in their membership numbers. North Carolina reduced its proportion of unionized workers back down to among the very lowest in the nation, from 3.4% in 2017 to 2.7% in 2018 (tied with South Carolina). Other states where workforce union membership grew by more than one percent were Arizona (from 4.0% to 5.3%), Colorado (from 9.6% to 11.0%), Hawaii (from 21.3% to 23.1%), Maine (11.4% to 12.9%), Massachusetts (from 12.4% to 13.7%), Nevada (12.7% to 13.9%), Rhode Island (16.1% to 17.4%), and Washington state (18.8% to 19.8%). Workforce union membership shrank by more than one percent in Illinois (15.0% to 13.8%), Michigan (15.6% to 14.5%), Nebraska (8.2% to 6.6%), New Hampshire (11.3% to 10.2%), New Jersey (16.2% to 14.9%), New York (23.8% to 22.8%), Oregon (14.9% to 13.9%), and West Virginia (11.0% to 10.0%).
Union membership rates among public sector employees did not drop off precipitously in the immediate wake of the Janus decision. Union membership among public employees did decline, from 7,216,000 (34.4%) to 7,167,000 (33.9%). In the past ten years, public sector union membership rates have declined by an equal or greater percentage five times. It will be interesting to see if public sector union membership numbers decline (and by how much) in 2019 after Janus has been the law of the land for over a full year.

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