Downturn Continues to Lower Union Membership

The labor market recession continued to exact a toll on union membership, which fell sharply in 2010.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unionized share of the U.S. workforce dropped to 11.9 percent last year from 12.3 percent in 2009.  The private sector unionization rate fell to 6.9 percent in 2010, from 7.2 percent in 2009.

While union membership and overall employment decreased in 2009 at about the same rate, unions continued to lose members in 2010 even as employment losses slowed.  Union rolls shrank by about 600,000 members.  Most major industry groups saw falling employment and union membership.

In construction, which faced the largest drop in both unionization and employment, union membership fell from 14.5 percent to 13.1 percent in 2010.  This was no doubt partly attributable to declining employment in non-residential construction, which is more heavily unionized than the residential sector.  Construction is one of the most heavily unionized sectors, accounting for more than 10 percent of union members in the private sector, so large job losses in the industry will lower the overall unionization rate.

In the private education and health services industries, a steady unionization rate of about 13.0 percent in education was offset by a larger fall within the health care industry, where the membership rate dropped from 7.5 percent to 6.9 percent last year.  Union membership among retailers also fell from 5.3 percent to 4.7 percent.  Unionization in the manufacturing sector, which had fallen sharply in recent years, dipped slightly to 10.7 percent from 10.9 percent in 2009.

Public sector unionization fell at all levels of the government.  Overall, the membership rate in the public sector dropped to 36.2 percent last year from 37.4 percent in 2009.  Cutbacks at the county and municipal levels reduced overall employment and union rolls, reducing the membership rate at the local governmental level from 43.3 percent in 2009 to 42.3 percent last year.

The number of unionized workers within the federal government remained about the same, even though the federal workforce grew.  As a result, union membership among federal workers declined to 26.8 percent from 28.0 percent last year.  Temporary hires for the 2010 Census contributed to the increase in federal, non-union employment.  At its peak in May, the 2010 Census employed more than half a million temporary workers.

Although public sector unionization fell significantly over 2010, the rate nevertheless remained close to its average over the past quarter of a century of about 37 percent.  Since the 1970s, unions have represented more than one-third of the public-sector workforce.  Employees in the private sector, where membership has consistently declined or stagnated, have less protection against dismissals during representation elections.

Unionization fell within almost all demographic groups in 2010.  Union membership among men decreased substantially from 13.3 percent in 2009 to 12.6 percent last year, whereas among women unionization dropped slightly from 11.3 percent to 11.1 percent.  Most ethnic groups saw declines, except for Latinos, whose membership rate remained roughly the same at about 10 percent.

Consistent with the stable unionization rate among Latinos was the rise in unionization in California from 17.2 percent to 17.5 percent.  California’s rate was higher in 2010 than it was in almost all years since the mid-1990s.  Regionally, states in the Northeast and Midwest saw the largest drops in unionization.  The membership rate in Illinois declined from 17.5 percent in 2009 to 15.5 percent last year.  New York remained the most highly unionized state in 2010, despite its rate falling from 25.2 percent to 24.2 percent.

After a few years of small gains, union membership tumbled in 2010.  Over 2009 and 2010, the Great Recession helped to reduce union rolls by more than 1.3 million members.  In the absence of federal support for state and local governments, public sector cutbacks will continue to depress the overall union membership rate.  Absent changes to labor law, offsetting increases in the private sector are unlikely.

Ben Zipperer is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.  This article was first published by CEPR on 21 January 2011 under a Creative Commons license.

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