Union Membership Byte 2006

January 20, 2006

January 20, 2006 (Union Membership Byte)

By John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer 

Unions Hold Their Own in 2005

According to the latest annual “Union Members” report, released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), union membership last year grew at roughly the same pace as overall job growth, leaving the share of U.S. workers in unions in 2005 unchanged at 12.5 percent.

The BLS distinguishes between workers who are union members and workers who are covered by unions at their workplace but not actually members of a union. In 2005, the union-coverage rate fell slightly, by 0.1 percentage point, to 13.7 percent of the workforce. Union membership increased from about 15.5 million in 2004 to about 15.7 million in 2005; workers covered by unions was basically unchanged at 17.2 million workers.

This year’s report marks a milestone in U.S. union history: for the first time ever, the share of workers in manufacturing who are covered by a union is no higher than the share of covered workers in the rest of economy (both 13.7 percent). Manufacturing workers are now no more likely to be represented by a union than the average U.S. worker. Union-membership rates are still slightly higher in manufacturing (13.0 percent) than in the economy as a whole (12.5 percent), but if recent trends hold, union membership in manufacturing will also soon fall behind the rest of the economy.

While the overall union membership and coverage rates were basically unchanged, the flat movement masks important difference by gender and race. Unionization rates fell for men (membership rates from 13.8 to 13.5 percent, coverage rates from 15.0 to 14.7 percent), but rose for women (membership from 11.1 to 11.3 percent, coverage rates from 12.5 to 12.6 percent).

African Americans are still much more likely to be covered by a union contract (16.5 percent) than whites are (13.4 percent), but the traditionally higher union rates for blacks relative to whites have eroded substantially over the last two decades. The unionization rate for Hispanics rose (membership rates from 10.1 to 10.4 percent, coverage rates from 11.4 to 11.5 percent), but Hispanics are still under-represented in unions relative to their representation in the total workforce.

Patterns for 2005 also varied across industry. Unionization rates remained high in the public sector (36.5 percent membership rate, 40.5 percent coverage rate), primarily because of high unionization rates in many local and state government functions including teaching, and fire and police services. Among federal employees, however, unionization rates dropped last year (membership down 2.1 percentage points to 27.8 percent, coverage down 1.9 percentage points to 33.1 percent).

Construction, which saw significant job growth overall in 2005, nevertheless experienced a decline in unionization rates (membership down 1.6 percentage points to 13.1 percent, coverage down 1.6 percentage points to 13.7 percent).

The government’s new “Information” industry category, which is more heavily unionized than the economy as a whole, also lost union members in 2005; membership rates fell from 14.2 percent in 2004 to 13.6 percent in 2005, while coverage fell a full percentage point from 15.4 percent to 14.4 percent in 2005.

The report may be a sign that the U.S. unions have stopped, if not reversed, a long-term decline in membership and coverage rates, but a review of recent BLS reports suggests caution. Union membership rates, for example, have dropped almost continuously from 20.1 percent in 1983, the earliest year with comparable data, to the current 12.5 percent rate, despite occasional pauses, most recently between 1998 and 1999, and again between 2000 and 2001.

John Schmitt is an Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Ben Zipperer is a Research Assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

CEPR’s Union Byte is published annually upon release of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Union Members Report. 

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