Unions Lost Members in 2009, as Overall Employment Fell

Union membership fell in line with the decline in overall employment in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual union membership report released today.  The unionized share of the U.S. workforce dipped to 12.3 percent last year from 12.4 percent in 2008.  For the first time ever, union members in the public sector outnumbered those in the private sector.

While the recession eliminated jobs across the private sector, employment fell most rapidly in the relatively unionized construction and manufacturing industries, placing downward pressure on the overall unionization rate.

The collapse of the housing bubble and corresponding decrease in private consumption and investment partially reversed small but significant membership gains by the labor movement over 2007 and 2008.  As total employment in 2009 fell by several million workers, unions lost more than 770,000 members.  Steep declines in manufacturing and construction accounted for nearly 60 percent of the reduction in private-sector employment over 2009.  In turn, more than 60 percent of the union membership loss occurred within those two industries.

As a result, the union membership rate in the private sector, the bulk of the U.S. economy, dropped to 7.2 percent in 2009 from 7.6 percent in 2008.  The fall in private sector unionization in 2009 was largely due to regional variation in the recession’s burden on industries.  In the manufacturing industry, for instance, the union membership rate fell from 11.4 percent in 2008 to 10.9 percent in 2009.  This decline in the national rate stemmed largely from the disproportionate impact of the recession on manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, where unions are relatively strong.

Most manufacturing employees work in Midwestern or Southern states, but the automobile and other manufacturing industries in the Midwest lost more than twice as many jobs as did the manufacturing industry in the South.  In the Midwest, the manufacturing unionization rate is about 15-17 percent, higher than the national average and more than double the manufacturing unionization rate of 6-7 percent in the South.  Disproportionate manufacturing job loss in Midwestern states over 2009 lowered the national union membership rate for manufacturing.

A similar trend held for the construction industry, where the union membership rate fell from 15.6 percent in 2008 to 14.5 percent in 2009.  Due to the downturn in the housing market, private-sector construction employment plummeted by more than 1 million workers over 2008-2009.  While construction employment shrank in every region of the U.S., more than 40 percent of the losses occurred in Western states, whose unionization rates exceed the national average in construction and whose workers are almost four times more likely to be in a union than construction workers in the South.

Almost all demographic groups saw modest declines in union membership in 2009.  Exceptions included Asian workers, whose membership rate rose from 10.6 percent in 2008 to 11.4 percent, still below the national average.

Overall employment in the public sector shrank in 2009 as local government employment losses offset gains at the state and federal level.  Public-sector unions maintained roughly the same total membership level, but the public-sector unionization rate increased to 37.4 percent from 36.8 percent in 2008 because of the decline in the size of the public sector.

Falling private-sector membership combined with a strong presence in the public sector is consistent with the historical trend of unionization in the U.S.  For more than thirty years, at least one-in-three public sector workers have been union members.  But over that same period in the private sector, union members fell from one-in-five private-sector workers to fewer than one-in-thirteen in 2009.  Organizing drives for unions face more obstacles in the private sector, where labor law gives employers far greater scope for resisting campaigns.

The recession in 2009 reduced the union workforce to 15.3 million members from 16.1 million members in 2008.  In the absence of changes to labor law, the outlook for private-sector unions remains uncertain.  In the next few years, budget constraints that force local and state governments to shrink significantly may negatively affect the overall unionization rate.

CEPR Senior Economist John Schmitt, Bureau of Labor Statistics Economist James Walker and Mark Levinson, Chief Economist of the SEIU will present further analysis of demographic trends over the past 25 years, the latest BLS data and projections of future trends in the unionized workforceon January 29, 2010 at 12:00 p.m. ET.  Details can be found here.

Ben Zipperer is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.  This article was published by CEPR on 22 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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