By Cherrie Bucknor
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released Thursday data on union membership for 2016. Using that report, and additional analysis of the raw data, this paper presents trends in union membership from 1983 to 2016.
In 2016, the share of workers who were members of a union decreased 0.4 percentage point to 10.7 percent (see Table 1), continuing a downward trend that has occurred since at least the early 1980s, when directly comparable data became available (see Figure 1).
In addition to a 0.4 percentage-point drop in membership rate, there were also 240,000 less union workers in 2016 than in 2015 (see Table 2).
Public and Private Sector
Union membership in the private sector fell by 119,000 and the membership rate fell 0.3 percentage point to 6.4 percent. There was a slightly larger decrease in union membership in the public sector (down 121,000), corresponding to a 0.8 percentage-point drop in the public sector membership rate to 34.4 percent.
Although public sector workers are more likely than their private sector counterparts to be union members, there remain more private-sector union members (7.4 million) than public-sector union members (7.1 million).
Since the early 1980s, the union membership rate in the private sector has declined steadily, while the membership rate in the public sector has been much more stable (see Figure 2).
In 2016, the gender gap in union membership continued to narrow (see Figure 3). The union membership rate for women fell 0.4 percentage point to 10.2 percent and the rate for men fell 0.3 percentage point to 11.2 percent. The number of female union members fell by 166,000 and the number of male union members fell by 75,000. Women also accounted for 45.8 percent of the union workforce in 2016, down from 46.2 percent in 2015.
Union membership rates continue to decline for most age groups (see Figure 4). Generally, union membership rates are higher for each successive age group, with the lone exception being the 65 and older age group. In 2016, the membership rate of workers ages 16 to 24 remained flat at 4.4 percent. Workers ages 25 to 34 had a membership rate of 9.2 percent, 0.5 percentage point less than in 2015. Workers ages 35 to 44 also experienced a drop in membership rate from 12.3 percent in 2015 to 12.0 percent in 2016. Workers in both the 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 age groups had a union membership rate of 13.3 percent. For workers ages 45 to 54, this represented a 0.3 percentage-point drop from 2015, and for workers ages 55 to 64, this represented a 1.0 percentage-point decline. The membership rate of workers ages 65 and older rose 0.1 percentage point to 9.6 percent in 2016.
Race and Ethnicity
In 2016, union membership rates decreased in every racial/ethnic group. Asian workers saw the greatest decrease in membership rate (down 0.8 percentage point to 9.0 percent), followed by Hispanics (down 0.6 percentage point to 8.8 percent), Blacks (down 0.6 percentage point to 13.0 percent), and whites (down 0.3 percentage point to 10.5 percent).
Using a different, but consistent measure of race and ethnicity, Figure 5 displays union membership rates from 1989 to 2016.
The BLS Union Members report does not publish union data by education level. Using the raw Current Population Survey (CPS) data, Figure 6 shows trends in union membership by education level from 1983 to 2016. Union membership rates rise as education level increases, therefore workers with an advanced degree are the most likely to be union members. In 2016, their membership rate decreased 0.9 percentage point to 16.0 percent. The membership rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree fell 0.5 percentage point to 10.4 percent. Workers with some college but no degree and those with a high school degree all saw their membership rates decrease 0.3 percentage point to 10.6 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively. Workers with less than a high school degree had a union membership rate of 5.4 percent in 2016, the same as in 2015.
Figure 7 uses the raw CPS data to show the trends in unionization for native- and foreign-born workers since 1994. In 2016, native workers (11.2 percent) remained more likely than their foreign-born peers (8.2 percent) to be union members.
The states with the five highest union membership rates were: New York (23.6 percent), Hawaii (19.9 percent), Alaska (18.5 percent), Connecticut (17.5 percent), and Washington (17.4 percent). The states with the five lowest rates were: South Carolina (1.6 percent), North Carolina (3.0 percent), Georgia and Arkansas (tied at 3.9 percent), and Texas (4.0 percent) (see Table 3).
The five states with the most union members were: California (2.6 million), New York (1.9 million), Illinois (812,000), Pennsylvania (685,000), and New Jersey (644,000). The states with the five fewest union members were: Wyoming (16,000), South Dakota and North Dakota (tied at 20,000), South Carolina (32,000), and the District of Columbia and Vermont (tied at 32,000).
About the author:
*Cherrie Bucknor is a Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2017. “Union Members 2016.” Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf.
 See: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017).
 The race/ethnicity categories in Figure 5 differ from the categories that appear in the BLS Union Members report and those from Table 1 of this report. The categories in Figure 5 are mutually exclusive. Hispanics are not included in the white, Black, or Asian categories and are counted only in the Hispanic category. The BLS includes Hispanics in the data for white, Black, and Asian categories as well as in the separate Hispanic category.