Union Membership Down in Government, Up in Private Sector

Published January 24, 2014

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its annual Union Members Summary report on labor union membership in the United States for 2013.

The report indicates the total level of union penetration in the workforce remained the same, at 11.3 percent in 2012 and 2013. Union density increased in the private sector by 0.1 percentage points and was accompanied by a decrease in the public sector of 0.6 percentage points. Total union membership reportedly increased by 162,000.

Changes of this sort have been fairly common since modern record keeping on union membership began in 1983, and the new data does not indicate a reversal of the long-term downward trend.

For example, total union density remained the same at 13.9 percent in 1998 and 1999 and then again at 13.5 percent in 2000 and 2001. It remained the same at 12.5 percent in 2004 and 2005, only to fall to 12.0 percent in 2006 and then increase slightly.

Down in 28 States, Up in 20

In 2013, union density declined in 28 states, remained the same in two states, and increased in 20 states. The big gains were in Alabama (1.5 percentage points) and Nebraska and Tennessee (both at 1.3 percentage points). The largest declines were in Louisiana (1.9 percent percentage points), Oregon (1.8 percentage points), and Utah (1.3 percentage points).

New York remained the most heavily unionized state, with a density of 24.4 percent, up 1.2 percentage points from 23.2 percent in 2012. North Carolina is still the least unionized state with a rate of 3.0 percent despite an increase of 0.1 percentage point from 2.9 percent in 2012.

Union Gains in Wisconsin

Also notable, considering all the controversy surrounding Gov. Scott Walker’s labor relations reforms, that union density in Wisconsin increased from 11.2 percent to 12.3 percent. It is also worth noting union density in Michigan, which became a right-to-work state in 2012, fell by only 0.3 percentage points, from 16.6 percent to 16.3 percent.

The union density information comes from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is extremely accurate but is subject to the statistical and sampling errors common to all survey data. Some analysts argue the CPS is accurate to plus or minus 0.2 percent. In a workforce of more than 129 million, that is approximately 250,000 persons, so the reported increase of 162,000 union members is well within the margin of error.