Industry Market Trends

How Union Membership Has Changed Over 25 Years

Nov 18, 2009

Unions today are composed of a greater share of women, Hispanics, Asian Pacific Americans and more-educated workers, according to new data that also indicate a shift in unionized labor away from manufacturing toward services.

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.

The union membership rate in the U.S. has fallen from 20.1 percent of employed wage and salary workers in 1983 to 12.4 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) latest union members summary, which reports that there are 16.1 million workers belonging to a union in the U.S., down from 17.7 million in 1983.

The dwindling membership base is not the only dramatically changing element of unionized labor across the nation.

A new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a progressive not-for-profit research center, points to a number of demographic shifts that have taken place over the last two-and-a-half decades.

The left-leaning think tank's report, titled The Changing Face of Labor, 1983-2008, analyzes trends in the union workforce over the last quarter century and reveals that it is more diverse today than it was just 25 years ago.

"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," according to John Schmitt, a senior economist with the CEPR and an author of the report.

The new data indicates, among other demographic changes, a shift away from unionized manufacturing toward unionized services, particularly within the public sector.

In 2008, only one in 10 union members worked in manufacturing, down from nearly three in 10 in 1983. Five in 10 union workers were in the public sector last year, and the remaining four out of 10 were in the private sector outside manufacturing, according to the CEPR.

Within the public sector, local government workers — including many workers in several heavily unionized occupations, such as teacher, police officers and firefighter — have the highest union membership rate (42.2 percent), according to the BLS.

Meanwhile, the share of manufacturing workers in the unionized workforce has been rapidly declining. The CEPR report says that 12.2 percent of manufacturing workers were unionized in 2008, down significantly from the 30.3 percent of manufacturing workers who were unionized in 1983.

Among all occupational groups, workers in education, training and library fields have the highest unionization rate (38.7 percent), followed by protective service occupations (35.4 percent), according to the BLS's 2008 data. Sales and related occupations (3.3 percent) and farming, fishing and forestry occupations (4.3 percent) have the lowest.

Another point the CEPR makes clear is that unionized workers have much more formal education today than they did in the early 1980s. "In 1983, union workers were slightly less educated than the overall workforce," the report says. "By 2008, union workers were slightly more educated than the overall workforce."

Today, more than one-third of union workers have at least a four-year college degree, up from only one in five in 1983.

The CEPR report points to a number of other key union findings. Among them:

  • Immigrants represented 12.6 percent of union members in 2008, up from 8.4 percent in 1994;
  • Latino workers, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the labor movement, represented 12.2 percent of the union workforce last year, up from 5.8 percent in 1983;
  • Asian workers have also made considerable gains, composing 4.6 percent of the union workforce in 2008, up from 2.5 percent in 1989; and
  • Black workers represented about 13 percent of the total unionized workforce last year, a share that has held relatively steady since 1983.

Some of the developments reflect changes in the broader U.S. workforce, which, for instance, also has more women in it today.

In fact, women are on track to constitute the majority of union workers by 2020, according to the CEPR report. Women represented more than 45 percent of unionized workers in 2008, up from 35 percent in 1983. Almost half (49.4 percent) of unionized women had at least a four-year college degree in 2008.

The percentage of men in unions has dropped to 14.5 percent in 2008 from 27.7 percent in 1983.

The typical union member is 45 years old, compared with 41 for the typical American worker. The age for both the typical union member and the typical worker is now seven years older than it was a quarter-century ago.

According to the study, the most heavily unionized age group was workers aged 55 to 64, with 18.4 percent of them in unions. The least unionized age group was 16- to 24-year-olds — 5.7 percent were in unions.


Union Members Summary: Union Members in 2008

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 28, 2009

The Changing Face of Labor, 1983-2008

by John Schmitt and Kris Warner

The Center for Economic and Policy Research, Nov. 10, 2009

Demographics of the Labor Movement Shift Considerably Over the Past 25 Years

The Center for Economic and Policy Research, Nov. 10, 2009