February 13, 2001 (Union Byte)

Union Byte

Union Numbers Steady, as Share Declines

February 13, 2001
By Dean Baker with assistance from Helene Jorgensen

The Labor Department's report on union membership shows that the number of union members has not changed significantly from last year, even though the percentage of the work force which is unionized is continuing its long decline. The report showed that there were 16,258,000 union members reported for the year. This is down by 219,000 from the 1999 level, but still 47,000 above the 1998 level. While some large organizing victories may have actually increased the number of members somewhat in 1999, given the errors in this data, the number of union members has essentially been flat over the last three years. In fact, the number of union members reported for 2000 is almost identical to the 16,269,000 members reported in 1996.

The fact that unions have been able to hold their membership levels constant in recent years is a significant improvement. During the five years prior to 1996, union membership fell by 300,000 workers.

If membership levels are staying roughly constant, it means that the percentage of the workforce which is unionized is declining. The unionization rate is now 13.9 percent of the workforce. In an economy adding more than 2 million jobs annually, union membership would have to grow by close to 300,000 annually to keep the unionization rate constant. At the peak of the last business cycle in 1989, the unionization rate stood at 16.4 percent.

The composition of the unionized work force has changed significantly since the last business cycle peak. While the percentage of union members who are black has stayed roughly constant at 15 percent, the share that identify themselves as Hispanic has risen from 7 percent to 9 percent. Women were 36 percent of union members in 1989; at present they are 41 percent. In absolute terms, the number of women who are union members is clearly rising, going from 6,141,000 in 1989 to 6,680,000 in 2000.

The loss of manufacturing jobs and their shift to the south has clearly had a large impact on unionization rates. In 1989, 21.6 percent of manufacturing workers were unionized. This was down to 15.6 percent last year. Similarly, the unionization rate among workers in mining fell from 17.6 percent in 1989 to10.6 percent in 2000. There are now just 57,000 unionized workers in mining, a category which includes workers in oil fields in addition to all types of mining.

The big union successes have been in the fast growing personal and business services sector and the government sector. In the service sector the unionization rate has held roughly constant since 1989, but the number of members has increased from 1,388,000 in 1989 to 1,809,000 in 2000. The unionization rate has actually risen slightly in the government sector from 36.7 percent in 1989 to 37.3 percent in 2000. The number of government workers who are unionized has risen by more than 600,000 from 6,422,000 in 1989 to 7,058,000 last year.

While unions have been holding their ground in the last several years, the future will pose serious problems. If the economy continues to lose jobs in the still relatively heavily unionized manufacturing sector, this will almost certainly erode membership numbers. Furthermore, if the economy takes a sharp downturn, the most heavily unionized sectors within manufacturing (autos and steel) are likely to experience the largest job loss. The Bush Administration's attitude towards unions remains to be seen. If it takes steps to make the organizing environment more hostile, then this will present another major obstacle to the labor movement's effort to sustain its voice. Since unions have been an important factor in raising the wages of less-skilled workers, a further decline in unionization rates is also likely to contribute to the growth of wage inequality throughout the economy.

Union membership has remained relatively constant over the last five years, after falling sharply in the previous fifteen.

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.