For the first time in the past quarter of a century, in 2007 U.S. unions increased their share of membership among workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) annual union membership report released today. Unions added about 310,000 members last year, raising the unionized share of the workforce to 12.1 percent from 12.0 percent in 2006.
The increase is small, and may well reflect statistical variation rather than an actual increase in the union membership share, but the uptick is striking because it is the first time since the BLS began collecting annual union membership rates in 1983 that the union share has increased.
The small national rise in union membership rates reflected a large increase in union membership in California, partially offset by substantial declines in the Midwest.
Among women, union membership rose from 10.9 percent of women workers in 2006 to 11.1 percent last year. Rates for men remained unchanged at 13.0 percent. This modest narrowing of the gender gap in union membership was primarily driven by gains among white women, whose unionization rate increased from 10.5 percent to 10.8 percent in 2007. African-American men saw their membership rate grow from 15.6 percent to 15.8 percent, but rates for black women fell to 13.0 percent in 2007 from 13.7 percent in 2006.
In the private sector, which accounts for the bulk of employment in the economy, union membership gains varied by industry. Construction unions increased their membership faster than the rate of job growth in that industry, with membership jumping from 13.0 percent in 2006 to 13.9 percent in 2007. Membership in the private health and education sectors grew from 8.3 percent to 8.8 percent. Unions also made headway in the low-paying retail industry, increasing membership rates from 5.0 percent to 5.2 percent.
Manufacturing, however, continued to lose unionized jobs in 2007 faster than the sector's overall decline in employment. Union membership in manufacturing fell to 11.3 percent in 2007 from 11.7 percent in 2006. Although manufacturing jobs were once accurately identified with unionized employment, manufacturing workers are now less likely to be in a union than is the average U.S. worker.
While the US experienced an overall gain in union membership, trends differed by region. Unionization in northeastern states, such as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, grew modestly from 18.4 percent in 2006 to 18.7 percent last year. Southern union membership remained unchanged at 5.9 percent, less than half of the national average.
Midwestern states, which include Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, historically have had a higher unionization rate than states in the West. But, for the first time since 1983 when comparable annual data became available, the unionization rate in the West (14.7 percent) exceeded the unionization rate in the Midwest (13.8 percent).
In the West, California added over 200,000 union members in 2007, helping to expand unionization in western states from 13.9 percent in 2006 to 14.7 percent last year. Meanwhile, Illinois weathered the largest loss of union membership of any state in 2007, as its share of unionized workers fell from 16.4 percent to 14.5 percent. Midwestern union membership in total dropped from 14.4 percent to 13.8 percent.
Although U.S. unions overall saw only a small increase in membership in 2007, this is the only year that unionization has risen in the past quarter of a century. Union membership has declined almost continuously, with occasional pauses, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 12.1 percent this year. (For complete data from 1983 through 2006, see http://www.unionstats.com/.)
This long-term decline stands in remarkable contrast to worker desire for unionization. According to polls of non-managerial workers, about one-half want to