Unions Shrink; Union Members Still Make More Money

The numbers of unionists and their share of the U.S. work force both declined in 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated.

Unions had 14,555,000 members in 2016, the BLS survey of 60,000 households shows. That's 10.7 percent of all U.S. workers. It's down 0.4 percent and 240,000 workers from the year before. Union contracts also covered another 1.7 million non-members last year.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had a somewhat sarcastic reaction to the figures. But he admitted labor “has challenges” from “corporations and their hired politicians.”      

“The sky is falling! The labor movement is dead! These are the canned reactions that out-of-touch people who want to believe their own story about unions will tell themselves” about the BLS data. “Neither reflect a real understanding about a movement that cannot be defined by government statistics,” Trumka defiantly declared.

“The truth is, collective action in America is stronger than ever,” Trumka added. He cited defeat of the jobs-destroying Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” pact “even when most people told us we couldn’t” and successful state and local raise-the-wage campaigns.

Labor will use collective action “to begin to change the tide for all working people, because a strong labor movement raises wages for all working families and improves our entire economy. For decades, study after study has proven that all wages in America have a direct tie to union density. And according to today’s report, workers in a union made $202 more per week. That’s money in people’s pocket. That’s a government statistic we can get behind.”

Once again, BLS calculated that unionists were concentrated in the Northeast, the Great Lakes and the Pacific Coast states, with more than half of all union members living in just seven states: California, 2.551 million (15.9 percent union), up 65,000; New York, 1.942 million (23.6 percent), down 96,000; Illinois, 812,000 (14.5 percent), down 35,000; Pennsylvania, 685,000 (12.1 percent), down 62,000; Michigan 606,000 (14.4 percent), down 15,000; New Jersey 644,000 (16.1 percent), up 68,000; and Ohio, 617,000 (12.4 percent), up 11,000.

New Jersey and Ohio passed Michigan, which now has a right-to-work law, for fourth place. New York was the only state where more than one-fifth of workers were unionized. Its union share dropped from 26 percent in 2015. The other state more than one-fifth union then, Hawaii, slid to 19.9 percent. Union numbers stayed the same, but Hawaii’s workforce grew.

South Carolina, then led by right wing Gov. Nikki Haley (R), was the least unionized state for the second year in a row, at 1.6 percent. In general, Southern states had low union densities, thanks to histories of rabid official anti-unionism, employers' efforts to pit the races against each other, and right-to-work laws. 

Despite the declines, unions still represented more private-sector workers (7.4 million) than public-sector workers (7.1 million), BLS said. But the public sector was more-unionized, with education and library servicers leading the way (34.6 percent) followed by protective services, such as Fire Fighters and emergency medical technicians (34.5 percent).

One of every 11 factory workers (8.8 percent) were unionized, for a total of 1.295 million, but union contracts also covered almost 130,000 non-union factory workers. One of every seven construction workers (13.9 percent) was unionized, but construction union contracts covered not just their own 1.039 million members, but 550,000 non-members. 

As usual, union members had huge weekly earnings edges over their non-union colleagues. The median weekly wage for all unionists was $1,004, compared to $802 for non-unionists. Union women and minority groups fared particularly well: The male-female wage gap shrank to nine cents per dollar between union men and women, with union women garnering median weekly pay of $955.

Unionized Latinos, Latinas and African-American men all had higher median weekly wages than the entire non-unionist median. Even workers in the lowest-paid sector, bars and restaurants, showed the edge, with a $567 weekly median, to $490 for non-unionists.