Overall union membership rises in 2017, union density holds steady

Newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics data on union membership trends show that union membership as a share of overall employment held steady at 10.7 percent in 2017, with essentially stable membership rates in both the private (6.4 or 6.5 percent) and public (34.4 percent) sectors.

Union membership gains among men offset continued losses among women last year. But, it is important to view these different trends by gender within historical context: union membership in 2017 was roughly equivalent among men (11.4 percent) as women (10.0 percent), compared to 1979 when men were more than twice as likely as women to be union members and comprised 69 percent of union members.

It is difficult to use one year changes in union membership trends to assess underlying dynamics. For one, the small samples involved for particular subgroups produce year-to-year volatility that should not be mistaken for a trend. Second, any change in union density can result from many different factors including the pattern of overall employment growth (whether sectors or occupations that are more heavily union grow faster or slower than average), the success or failure of union organizing drives, the scale of union organizing, changes in workers’ desire for union membership (i.e., demand for collective bargaining), and other factors. An understanding of the dynamics of union membership and representation requires a long-term analysis of detailed trends.

Nevertheless, it is worth squeezing out what is plausibly interesting in the most recent data:

  • Union membership (according to the BLS release) rose by 262,000 in 2017, more than the 173,000 additional workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement (hereafter referred to as “coverage”). See Table 1 (which relies on tabulations of the underlying survey data because BLS does not provide gender breakdowns within sectors). The greater growth in union membership than coverage was driven by developments in the private sector where membership growth was triple (164,000) that of the growth of coverage (53,000), centered in professional and service occupations.
Table 1

Union membership and collective bargaining coverage: By sector, for men and women, annual 2016-17

 Employment Rates
Sector  All  Union membership  Collective bargaining coverage Union membership Collective bargaining coverage
Change, 2016 to 2017
All industries 1,781,023 261,891 171,556 0.1% 0.0%
Men 870,382 282,105 230,065 0.3% 0.2%
Women 910,642 (20,214) (58,509) -0.2% -0.2%
Private sector all 1,499,242 164,069 52,852 0.1% 0.0%
Men 670,042 214,632 120,916 0.3% 0.1%
Women 829,199 (50,563) (68,063) -0.2% -0.2%
Public sector zll 281,782 97,822 118,704 0.0% 0.1%
Men 200,339 67,473 109,150 0.0% 0.4%
Women 81,443 30,349 9,554 0.0% -0.2%

Note: Changes in rates are percentage point changes.

Source: Economic Policy Institute, Analysis of Current Population Survey data.

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  • Union membership became more common among men: some 32 percent of the net increase in male employment in 2017 went to men who were union members, leading union membership to rise from 11.2 to 11.4 percent of all male employment. Growth of union membership for men was strong in both the public and private sectors and for Hispanic and for non-Hispanic white men.
  • Correspondingly, union membership dipped slightly among women because women’s union membership did not rise in the private sector although employment overall did rise—private sector employment growth for women was concentrated in nonunion sectors. Union membership growth, however, was strong among Hispanic women.
Table 2

Change in union membership and union coverage rates by gender, 2014-2017

2014 2015 2016 2017
Union membership 11.1 11.1 10.7 10.7
Bargaining coverage 12.3 12.3 12.0 11.9
Union membership 11.7 11.5 11.2 11.4
Bargaining coverage 12.8 12.6 12.3 12.5
Union membership 10.5 10.6 10.2 10.0
Bargaining coverage 11.7 11.9 11.6 11.3

Source: Economic Policy Institute analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics

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  • Union membership grew in manufacturing despite an overall decline in manufacturing employment. Union membership was also strong in the wholesale and retail sectors, in the public sector and in information sector (where union membership density rose 1.9 percentage points).
  • Union membership density was stable or grew in a number of Southern states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia with especially strong growth in Texas.