Labor unions have a long history in the American workplace.
Created in response to the squalid working conditions that emerged from the Industrial Revolution, unions have been a political and social force since the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in the late 1800s.
Today's unions lack the muscle they once had in Washington and in the workplace. Public sector workers represent the largest segment of membership rolls, and many unions have struggled to hold their ground against anti-unionization efforts of private employers.
Unions may be down, but they're not out. American businesses and private employers need to educate themselves about fair labor practices and the influence of unionization on the U.S. workforce, starting with the most recent labor union statistics.
- 2009 Membership Rate. The 2009 union membership rate was 12.3% compared to 12.4% in 2008. The number of workers claiming union membership declined 771,000 to 15.3 million over the same time period. Although annual membership appears flat, it's consistent with long-term declines.
- Decline in Membership. Total union membership has experienced steep declines over the past several decades. In 1983, 17.7 million workers representing 20.1% of the workforce belonged to unions, indicating a long downward trend in unionization.
- Public vs. Private Membership. The comparison of public vs. private sector union membership is especially telling for U.S. businesses. Although the number of public sector union members (7.9 million) is similar to the number of private sector union members (7.4 million), the private sector workforce is approximately five times the size of the workforce in the public sector.
- Geographic Data. Approximately half of the union members in the U.S. reside in six states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey. The state with the highest percentage of unionized workers is New York (25.2%); the state with the lowest membership percentage is North Carolina (3.1%). Although unions are a concern for employers across the nation, they are especially prevalent in states with historic ties to unions or vibrant manufacturing and agricultural industries.
- Demographic Distribution. Men and older workers are more likely to participate in a union than women and younger workers, but the gender gap is small at 2% of the national workface. In terms of race and ethnicity, African-American workers have the highest membership rates (13.9%), followed by whites (12.1%), Asians (11.4%), and Hispanics (10.2%).