Note from the editor: Although many details have been recorded about labor union history, statistical data didn’t start being compiled until 1983. Therefore, this article will compare data from 1983, 2008, and 2018.
Union demographics have changed a lot over the past 35 years. To start, there has been a significant decline in union membership throughout the U.S. during the last few decades. In 1983, 20.1% of employed wage and salary workers were unionized, which fell to 12.4% in 2008. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) latest union membership statistics, this number was down to 10.5% in 2018.
Around the middle of the last century, labor unions represented about a third of all American workers. Since then, the United States labor movement has undergone major changes, particularly in recent years — not the least of which has been shrinking membership. In 1983, 17.7 million workers were part of a union. Almost 10 years ago, the number dropped to 16.1 million, and in 2018, that number dipped to 14.7 million.
The dwindling membership base is not the only factor affecting unionized labor in the U.S. — racial, ethnic, gender, and industry-distribution demographics have also changed significantly since 1983.
Shifts in Union Membership by Industry
In 2009, a study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a progressive not-for-profit research center, pointed to a number of demographic shifts that had taken place between 1983 and 2008.
The left-leaning think tank’s report, titled “The Changing Face of Labor, 1983-2008,” analyzed trends in the union workforce over the 25-year span, revealing an increase in diversity. According to the BLS’ most recent summary, this trend has continued throughout the past decade.
In the original press release, John Schmitt, senior research fellow at CEPR and one of the authors of the report stated, “The view that the typical union worker is a white male manufacturing worker may have been correct a quarter of a century ago, but it’s not an accurate description of those in today’s labor movement.”
This report, when analyzed alongside the most recent information from BLS, helps to paint a picture of how union membership has changed over time.
The data at the time indicated, among other demographic changes, a shift away from unionized industrial work toward unionized services, particularly within the public sector.
For example, in 2008, only one in 10 union members worked in manufacturing, down from nearly three in 10 in 1983. Ten years later, in 2018, union membership within the manufacturing industry continued to drop.
As for industries with high levels of unionization, the BLS reported in 2008 that, within the public sector, local government workers — including many workers in several heavily unionized occupations, such as teaching, law enforcement, and firefighting — had the highest union membership rate, which was 42.2% at the time. According to the most recent data, this has largely stayed the same, with only a slight decrease to 40.3% in 2018.
Meanwhile, the share of manufacturing workers in the unionized workforce has been rapidly declining. In 2009, CEPR reported that only 12.2% of manufacturing workers were unionized in 2008, down significantly from the 30.3% of manufacturing workers who were unionized in 1983. Today, only 9% of manufacturing workers are unionized.
Occupational Group Data
In 2008, workers in education, training, and library fields represented the highest unionization rate, at 38.7%, followed by protective service occupations, at 35.4%. Today, protective service occupations have the highest unionization rates, at 33.9%, followed very closely by the education, training, and library sectors, at 33.8%.
The industries with the lowest unionization rates in 2008 were farming, fishing, forestry, and sales. Ten years later, these industries still have very low unionization rates, as do computer and math occupations, as well as food preparation and service occupations.
Racial, Gender, and Age Demographics: Then and Now
The 2009 CEPR report pointed to a number of key union findings. Among them:
- Latino workers, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the labor movement, represented 12.2% of the union workforce last year, up from 5.8% in 1983.
- Asian workers also made considerable gains, comprising 4.6% of the union workforce in 2008, up from 2.5% in 1989.
- Black workers represented about 13% of the total unionized workforce last year, a share that has held relatively steady since 1983.
In 2018, black workers continued to represent the largest number of total unionized workers, at 12.5%. Latino workers decreased to 9.1%, while Asians increased to 8.4%.
Some of the developments in union membership reflect changes in the broader U.S. workforce, including gender and workforce age.
In 1983, only 35% of unionized workers were women. In 2008, this number rose considerably, to 45%. Although the BLS’ most recent report didn’t comment on 2018’s gender proportions, it did highlight the fact that men have a slightly higher union membership rate than women; 11.1% of working men are unionized, compared to 9.9% of working women, indicating that the gap between the sexes continues to narrow.
However, the union membership rate for men has been dwindling over the past 35 years. In 1983, it was reported that 27.7% of men were unionized. By 2008, this number dropped to 14.5%. Ten years later, the decline in their numbers still continues at a steady rate.
According to the CEPR 2009 report as well as the BLS’ most recent report, the most heavily unionized age group was and continues to be workers aged 55 to 64. In 2008, 18.4% of this age group was unionized, which dropped down 13.5%.
In 2008, the least unionized age group were workers between 16 to 24 years old. Only 5.7% of this age group was in unions at that time. Fast-forward 10 years later, to 2018, and this number continues to see a steady decline. Today, only 4.4% of workers in this age group are unionized.
This article was originally written by David Butcher in November 2009 and was updated by Kristin Manganello in March 2019.
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