Union Membership Hits All-Time Low, Though State-Based Discrepancies Remain

GettyImages-116040122-compressorAmerica’s union membership rates has halved over the past three decades to reach new lows, crunched by a decline in the manufacturing sector.

The percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of unions was 10.7% in 2016, an annual decline of 0.4 percentage points that amounted to 240,000 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Back in 1983, membership levels were 20.1%.

Organized labor has been in steady decline, as many unskilled blue-collar roles are either outsourced to lower-cost countries such as China or replaced by machines. Much of the benefits offered by unions also have been supplanted, either by government legislation or corporations offering similarly-attractive packages to employees.

“The percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of unions was 10.7% in 2016, an annual decline of 0.4 percentage points. Back in 1983, membership levels were 20.1%.

Individual corporate offers, however, can be benchmarked against benefits negotiated via organized labor, potentially giving CEOs more scope to set their own terms and conditions, should union membership decline to more marginal levels.

To be sure, unions leaders have been emboldened by Donald Trump’s protectionist stance and some met with him this week at the White House after he withdrew the U.S. from the Trans Pacific Partnership. It remains unclear, though, whether membership levels would rebound if the manufacturing sector recovers.

Non-unionized workers are still earning less: with median weekly earnings of $802, they make 80% of the $1,004 earned by their unionized counterparts. The Labor Department stressed, though, that this comparison was made on a broad level and didn’t account for other control factors that determine pay levels, such as skills and occupation.

Public-sector membership stood at 34.4% in 2016, more than five times higher than private-sector workers, at 6.4%. Workers in education, training and library occupations—and in protective service occupations, such as prison guards—were the most heavily unionized.

New York state had the highest membership rate, at 23.6%, followed by Hawaii, Alaska and Connecticut.

North Carolina had the lowest at 1.6%. The next lowest were in North Carolina, Arkansas and Georgia. The full state list can be viewed here.

Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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