Jump in Public Sector Unionization Raises Overall Rate Again in 2008
January 28, 2009
By Ben Zipperer
Union membership increased significantly in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual union membership report released today. The unionized share of the U.S. workforce climbed to 12.4 percent last year from 12.1 percent in 2007, an addition to union rolls of more than 420,000 members.
While the gains were broadly shared across demographic lines and occupations, growth was strongest in the public sector, among Hispanics, and in Western states, driving the largest membership increase in more than a quarter of a century.
The bulk of the overall membership rise in 2008 originated in public sector unions, which added members faster than government employment expanded. Public sector unionization last year grew to 36.8 percent from 35.9 percent in 2007. This increase of about 275,000 members came largely through gains in local and state government, where unionization in 2008 reached 42.2 percent and 31.6 percent, respectively.
While overall employment in the private sector shrank in 2008, few major industries or occupations saw unionization rates decline. Small drops in unionization in financial and business services and in mining were more than offset by membership gains in education, health, and hospitality services. As a result, private-sector unionization rose from 7.5 percent in 2007 to 7.6 percent in 2008.
Since the late 1970s, unions have consistently represented more than one-third of the public-sector workforce, but over the same period private-sector union membership has been falling sharply: about one-in-five private sector workers were union members in the late 1970s, compared to about one-in-thirteen in 2008. Organizing drives can be difficult in the private sector, where employers may often fire workers without cause. Through employment contracts and legislation, public-sector employees typically have greater protection against dismissals.
Union membership in manufacturing remained essentially unchanged at 11.4 percent in 2008, compared to 11.3 percent in 2007. Once considered the bulwark of the labor movement, manufacturing workers are now less likely than workers in the rest of the economy to be union members. A “union job” in the private sector today is most likely to be in transportation and utilities (22.2 percent) or telecommunications (19.3 percent).
Although the union membership rate among construction workers rose to 15.6 percent from 13.9 percent in 2007, the rise primarily reflects the industry's massive contraction over 2008. As the housing crisis elicited sharp declines in the largely non-unionized residential construction sector, the level of union membership within the overall construction industry remained the same, at about 1.2 million workers.
More than 120,000 Hispanics became union members in 2008, with their membership rate rising to 10.6 percent from 9.8 percent in 2007. Membership among African-Americans increased from 14.3 percent to 14.5 percent. Among whites, unionization rose from 11.8 percent to 12.2 percent. The overall female and male membership rates rose by less than half a percentage point each, to 11.4 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively.
Unionization also increased in Mid-Western states, from 13.8 percent to 14.3 percent, yet failed to match the rapid pace of expansion in the West, where unionization grew from 14.7 percent to 15.7 percent. Since 2006, unionization has surged in Western states. California alone added about 266,000 union members last year, raising its unionization rate to 18.4 percent from 16.7 percent in 2007. Over the last three years, union membership in the South has remained at 5.9 percent, less than half of the national average.
In 2008, union employment successfully weathered the beginnings of what may be the most severe recession in the post-World War II period. Compared to the historical trend of U.S. union membership, even in times of labor market strength, the membership gains in 2008 stand out. The statistically significant rise from 12.1 to 12.4 percent, approaching nearly half a million members, is the largest on record since 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available. Except for last year's increase and a small uptick in 2007, union membership has otherwise fallen or stagnated annually from 20.1 percent in 1983.
Ben Zipperer is a senior research associate of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.