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Report: Only 6.6% of private sector workers are union members

January 25, 2013
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In 2012, the union membership rate--the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union--was 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on January 23.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.4 million, also declined over the year. 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 union workers.

The data on union membership were collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation's civilian noninstitutional population ages 16 and over.

Highlights from the 2012 data:

  • Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.9 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.6 percent).
  • Workers in education, training, and library occupations and in protective service occupations had the highest unionization rates, at 35.4 and 34.8  percent, respectively.
  • Black workers were more likely to be union members than were white, Asian, or Hispanic workers.
  • Among states, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate (23.2 percent), and North Carolina again had the lowest rate (2.9 percent).

Industry and Occupation of Union Members

In 2012, 7.3 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.0 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (35.9 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.6 percent).

Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 41.7 percent. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters.

Private-sector industries with high unionization rates included transportation and utilities (20.6 percent) and construction (13.2 percent).  Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.4 percent) and in financial activities (1.9 percent).

Among occupational groups, education, training, and library occupations (35.4 percent) and protective service occupations (34.8 percent) had the highest unionization rates in 2012. Sales and related occupations (2.9 percent) and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (3.4 percent) had the lowest unionization rates.

Selected Characteristics of Union Members

The union membership rate was higher for men (12.0 percent) than for women (10.5 percent) in 2012. The gap between their rates has narrowed considerably since 1983, when the rate for men was 24.7 percent and the rate for women was 14.6 percent.

In 2012, among major race and ethnicity groups, black workers had a higher union membership rate (13.4 percent) than workers who were white (11.1 percent), Asian (9.6 percent), or Hispanic (9.8 percent). Black men had the highest union membership rate (14.8 percent), while Asian men had the lowest rate (8.9 percent).

By age, the union membership rate was highest among workers ages 55 to 64 (14.9 percent). The lowest union membership rate occurred among those ages 16 to 24 (4.2 percent).

Full-time workers were about twice as likely as part-time workers to be union members, 12.5 percent compared with 6.0 percent.

Union Representation

In 2012, 15.9 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union. This group includes both union members (14.4 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.6 million).) Private-sector employees comprised about half (814,000) of the 1.6 million workers who were covered by a union contract but were not members of a union. (See table 3.)

Earnings

In 2012, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742. In addition to coverage by a collective bargaining agreement, this earnings difference reflects a variety of influences, including variations in the distributions of union members and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, firm size, or geographic region.

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