The Changing Face of Labor, 1983-2008

The kind of left-wing politics that arises when men in the private sector are the majority of organized labor and the kind that may arise when women in the public sector are the majority of it cannot be the same.  In the core capitalist countries, it is likely to be a Left which has figured out what kind of left-wing politics is possible and desirable under the latter condition that has a shot at going from defense to offense.  Thoughts on this question will be most welcome at MRZine.  — Ed.

The Changing Face of Labor, 1983-2008
by John Schmitt and Kris Warner

Executive Summary

Over the last quarter century, the unionized workforce has changed dramatically.  In 1983, over half of all union workers were white men, few union workers had a college degree, and almost one-third were in manufacturing.

In 2008:

  • Over 45 percent of unionized workers were women, up from 35 percent in 1983.  At current growth rates, women will be the majority of unionized workers before 2020.
  • Over one-third (37.5 percent) of union workers had a four-year college degree or more, up from only one-in-five (20.3 percent) in 1983.  Almost half (49.4 percent) of union women had at least a four-year college degree.
  • Only about one-in-ten unionized workers was in manufacturing, down from almost 30 percent in 1983.
  • Just under half (48.9 percent) of unionized workers were in the public sector, up from about one-third (34.4 percent) in 1983.  About 61 percent of unionized women are in the public sector, compared to about 38 percent for men.
  • Latinos were 12.2 percent of the unionized workforce, up from 5.8 percent in 1983.  Asian Pacific Americans were 4.6 percent of union workers, up from 2.5 percent in 1989.
  • About one-in-eight (12.6 percent) of union workers was an immigrant, up from one in twelve (8.4 percent) in 1994, the earliest year for which consistent data are available.
  • Black workers were about 13 percent of the total unionized workforce, a share that has held fairly steady since 1983, despite a large decline in the representation of whites over the same period.
  • Unionized workers were most likely to live in the Northeast (27.4 percent), the Midwest (25.7 percent), and the Pacific states (22.7 percent).  A smaller share of the unionized workforce lives in the South (18.7 percent) and the West (5.6 percent).  Since 2006, unionization rates have been increasing in the Pacific states (up from 17.6 percent in 2006 to 19.9 percent in 2008), the Northeast (up from 19.5 percent to 20.3 percent), and the West (up from 10.1 percent to 10.7 percent).  Over the same period, unionization rates have been basically flat in the Midwest (at about 15.5 percent) and in the South (at 7.0-7.2 percent).
  • The typical union worker was 45 years old, or about 7 years older than in 1983.  (The typical employee, regardless of union status, was 41 years old, also about 7 years older than in 1983.)
  • The most heavily unionized age group was 55-64 year olds (18.4 percent of 55-64 year-old workers are in a union).  The least unionized age group was 16-24 year olds (5.7 percent).
  • More-educated workers were more likely to be unionized than less-educated workers, a reversal from 25 years ago.
  • In rough terms, five of every ten union workers were in the public sector; one of every ten was in manufacturing; and the remaining four of ten were in the private sector outside of manufacturing.

These trends in the composition of the unionized workforce, in part, reflect similar shifts in the workforce as a whole toward a greater share of women, Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans, and older, more-educated workers and a shift out of manufacturing toward services.

John Schmitt is a Senior Economist and Kris Warner is a Program Assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C.  This article was published by the CEPR in November 2009 under a Creative Commons license.

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