Labor Union Density Shows First Uptick Since 1983

Published June 1, 2008

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) annual report on union membership in the United States has logged the first increase in union membership as a share of the U.S. workforce in nearly 25 years.

The gain shown in Union Members in 2007 falls within the margin of error for the survey.

Every year BLS releases a summary of information from the Current Population Survey (CPS) about employment and union membership. It contains national figures for the total workforce and breakdowns by industry and occupation. The industry breakdown includes whether it is in the private or public sector, and the public sector is further divided by federal, state, and local employment.

Union Members in 2007, released early this year, is of particular interest because it shows a slight uptick in union density, the first since modern record-keeping on the subject began in 1983.

The report shows total union density increased 0.1 percentage points, from 12.0 percent of the workforce in 2006 to 12.1 in 2007. On private payrolls the increase was 0.1 percentage points, from 7.4 in 2006 to 7.5 in 2007. In the public sector density fell from 36.2 percent in 2006 to 35.9 in 2007.

Growth in Government Jobs

A key factor in understanding the figures is that 43 percent of all new jobs in 2007 were in public employment. In 2007 government employment grew 3.2 percent while employment on private payrolls grew by just 0.8 percent.

In recent years the average annual increase in public employment has been about 1.7 percent, compared to 1.6 percent in the private sector.

Of the 311,000 new union members, 179,000 (63 percent) were public employees, and 132,000 were on private payrolls.

Despite the decline in union density in the public sector and the fact that only one in six jobs is in government, the extent to which the entire union movement consists of public employees increased again, from 48.0 percent in 2006 to 48.2 percent in 2007.

Table 1: Percent Union – Total, Private, Public Annual Figures
and Five Year Average 1998 – 2007
Year Total
1998 13.9 14.6 9.5 10.0 37.5 37.8
1999 13.9 14.2 9.4 9.8 37.3 37.5
2000 13.5 14.0 9.0 9.5 37.5 37.4
2001 13.5 13.7 9.0 9.3 37.4 37.4
2002 13.3 13.6 8.6 9.1 37.8 37.5
2003 12.9 13.4 8.2 8.8 37.2 37.4
2004 12.5 13.1 7.9 8.5 36.4 37.2
2005 12.5 12.9 7.8 8.3 36.5 37.0
2006 12.0 12.6 7.4 8.0 36.2 36.8
2007 12.1 12.4 7.5 7.8 35.9 36.4

It seems inevitable that some time in the not-too-distant future most union members in America will be government employees. In 2007, government employee union members comprised the majority of all union members in 25 states.

The portion of government employees who are union members has likewise been steadily increasing. In 1983, 32.4 percent of the government workforce was unionized. In 2007, 35.9 percent of the government workforce was unionized.

Downward Trend

Because the apparent increase of 0.1 percentage points is within the margin of error for the survey, I applied a five-year moving average to the annual figures for the past 10 years. This indicates that despite the apparent increase in 2007, the downward trend continues in all sectors.

Interestingly, the annual data show union density in the public sector has declined for two years, but the five-year average, which more accurately demonstrates trends, shows this decline in public-sector density has been going on for five years. Table 1 shows those trends.

Because the sample size for CPS is smaller at the state level and public-sector employment is a relatively small portion of total employment, the numbers are not as accurate and tend to fluctuate more than is realistic from year to year. The situation does, however, vary slightly from year to year and from state to state.

The Public Service Research Foundation maintains a set of tables and charts on employment, union membership, and union density–total, private, and public–for each state. Those tables and charts are available on request.

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

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Union Members in 2007, Bureau of Labor Statistics: