Extent of Government Unionism Varies Greatly

Published August 1, 2007

The public sector is the “growth industry” for labor unions, with membership in government employment about five times greater than it is on private payrolls.

That’s the conclusion of new research by Professors Barry T. Hirsh of Trinity University and David A. Macpherson of Florida State University, both highly respected experts who run the Unionstats.com Web site.

The level of union density isn’t homogenous among the government sectors or among the states, though union density in public employment has been relatively constant since the modern era of record keeping began in 1983.

In 2006, 17.4 percent of federal government workers were union members, compared to 30.2 percent of state and 41.9 percent of local government employees, according to Hirsh and Macpherson.

The figure for federal workers does not include the 807,500 Postal Service Workers, 63.3 percent of whom were union members.

Census Numbers

Hirsh and Macpherson derived their information by analyzing the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual summary of information about employment and union membership from the Current Population Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The BLS Summary contains national figures for the total workforce and breakdowns by industry and occupation. For the past several years this release has contained a table with state-by-state data, but the data are consolidated, without industry- and occupation-specific numbers.

Declines in 2006

The BLS release for 2006, issued in January 2007, reported a total drop in union membership in 2006 of 326,000 members and a decline in union density from 12.5 to 12.0 percent of workers. Most of this loss was on private payrolls, where unions lost 274,000 members and density fell from 7.8 to 7.4 percent of the workforce.

Unions of government workers lost 52,000 members, and density fell from 36.5 to 36.2 percent.

The differences in public-sector union density in the states range from a low of 8.2 percent in South Carolina to a high of 68.8 percent in New York.

Variations Among States

The state public-sector unionism figures need a few words of caution. They include all public employment–federal, state, and local. A large federal presence in a state could distort the numbers.

Other distortions are possible. In Ohio, for example, even though almost 43 percent of government employees are union members, public-sector union membership constitutes only about 44 percent of all union members, because unionism in the private sector is so much more robust than the national average.

Conversely, in North Carolina, where public-sector union density is only 10.8 percent, 54 percent of all union members are government employees, because there are few private-sector union members.

Public-Sector Unionism by State
State 2005 – 2006 Change in Public Percent Union 2006 Public Percent of Total Union
Alabama -2.0% 56.4%
Alaska 0.8% 59.6%
Arizona 6.5% 51.5%
Arkansas -2.6% 36.8%
California -1.2% 51.5%
Colorado -1.0% 43.9%
Connecticut -4.5% 56.1%
Delaware 0.9% 53.2%
Florida 0.3% 61.2%
Georgia -2.5% 35.3%
Hawaii -2.5% 49.4%
Idaho 0.8% 46.5%
Illinois 0.9% 41.4%
Indiana -0.4% 31.7%
Iowa -1.9% 46.1%
Kansas 4.5% 45.1%
Kentucky -2.3% 29.0%
Louisiana 1.6% 38.7%
Maine 3.5% 62.3%
Maryland -0.8% 56.4%
Massachusetts 0.8% 50.2%
Michigan -2.2% 39.5%
Minnesota -0.6% 48.1%
Mississippi -2.4% 42.0%
Missouri -1.1% 25.7%
Montana 6.3% 65.4%
Nebraska -1.4% 53.7%
Nevada 4.7% 25.4%
New Hampshire -4.9% 62.8%
New Jersey 0.2% 53.7%
New Mexico -4.7% 56.6%
New York -0.1% 50.7%
North Carolina 2.1% 54.0%
North Dakota -3.4% 58.1%
Ohio -2.5% 44.0%
Oklahoma 3.2% 55.5%
Oregon -0.4% 53.6%
Pennsylvania 2.5% 48.9%
Rhode Island 1.9% 56.1%
South Carolina 0.8% 45.7%
South Dakota 1.2% 61.1%
Tennessee 4.6% 55.9%
Texas -1.3% 51.6%
Utah 2.3% 58.3%
Vermont 2.2% 62.6%
Virginia -2.0% 38.4%
Washington 4.9% 47.3%
West Virginia 1.7% 41.8%
Wisconsin 4.1% 47.4%
Wyoming 0.3% 42.8%

Also, the figures are subject to the statistical and sampling errors of all survey data. As a result, particularly in lower-population states where the sample size is necessarily smaller, the figures can change dramatically from year to year without reflecting any real underlying change.

With those words of caution in mind, the accompanying table shows the state-by-state changes in public-sector union density between 2005 and 2006.

Government’s Dominance

An undercurrent of these changes in union density in the different sectors is the extent to which the entire union movement is composed of government workers. During the union heyday of the 1950s, about 5 percent of all union members worked for government. By 1983 that figure had risen to 32.4 percent, and in 2006 it was 48 percent.

It seems inevitable that in the not-too-distant future a majority of all union members will work for government. That is already the case in several states. How this shift is influencing the political and economic positions of organized labor is open to speculation.

David Denholm ([email protected]) is president of the Public Service Research Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization that studies unions and union influence on public policy.

For more information …

More detailed information from the Current Population Survey about union membership is available at http://www.unionstats.com. The Public Service Research Foundation, http://www.psrf.org, has compiled these data into a set of tables and charts for each state covering the period from 1983 to the present. These tables and charts are available on request without charge.