Trends In Union Membership

The United States has a long history of Labor Unions from the Industrial Age until today. The most famous labor union, the American Federation of Labor ("AFL"), was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers and had 1.4 million members. Labor unions in those early years brought increased wages, shorter working hours, and enhanced workplace safety.

Union membership made enormous increases during the World War II era. The Congress of Industrial Organizations ("CIO") founded by John L. Lewis in 1935 was a federation of unions that organized workers in the United States and Canada. It eventually merged with the AFL in 1955 and became known as the AFL-CIO. The World War II era unions brought advances in fair employment practices, vacation pay, increased pay, and better working conditions.

It is believed that the peak of union activity in the U.S. was around 1970 and there has been a slow decline ever since. However, we do not really know, because comparable union data had not been kept prior to 1983. Certainly, since 1983 there has been a steady decline in union membership in the United States.

Labor Union Statistics

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics records indicate that the number of union members has declined by 50% from 1983 to 2016. In 1983, the union membership rate was 20.1% with the membership rate in 2016 being just 10.7%. The number of workers who reported belonging to a labor union in 2016 was 14.6 million. In 1983 there were 17.7 million union workers.

Although there is an over-all decline in union membership, it is not the whole story. There has been a sharp decline in union membership among private companies, but a modest rise in union membership in the public sector. Union membership in the private sector has dropped by 4 million from 1983 to 2016, but there has been a rise of about 1.5 million in the public sector for the same period.

Occupations with Greatest Union Participation

Workers in education, training, library occupations and protective services have the highest union rates. Roughly, 38% of the educators and librarians belong to a union. While 34% of police officers, fire fighters, correctional officers, and security guards belong to unions.

The median salary for a nonunion worker is 20% less than what a union employee makes. This figured has remained fairly constant over the years from 1983 to 2016. The average weekly salary in 2016 for a union worker is $1,004, while a non-union worker only receives $802.

Union Participation by State

New York State has the highest union membership rate and South Carolina has the lowest rate. The membership rate in New York for 2016 is 23.6%. For the same year, the membership rate in South Carolina is 1.6 percent.

The national average in 2016 by state for union membership is 10.7%. All states in the West South Central division had union membership below the national average and all states in the Middle Atlantic and Pacific divisions had rates above average. For most states (31) union membership in 2016 decreased, but there was increase in 16 states and 3 states remained unchanged.

Union membership in states with an increase showed overall employment increases, compared to the states with declining union membership.


The demographics for union members show that participation for males is slightly higher than for females, but only by a percentage point. Black workers have the highest union membership rate with White workers a close second, followed by Asian and then Hispanic. As far as age group, workers between the ages of 45 to 64 have the highest number of union members.

Future Trends

If the trends hold, we would expect to see further declines in private sector union membership rates, but union rates in the public sector should hold fairly steady. If younger workers are not attracted to unions, there should be a sharp decline in union membership rates as the baby boomers retire.

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