The number of workers in unions remained virtually unchanged last year. This is somewhat unusual in light of long-term trends in the U.S., where membership has been dropping steadily for the past 30 years. In 1983, 1 in 5 Americans (20.1% of the workforce) was a union member; last year that number was about 1 in 10 (11.2%).
Despite this long, steady decline, some states remain relatively union-friendly. Yet these are more than counterbalanced by those that have virtually no union presence. In New York, Alaska and Hawaii, between 22 and 24% of workers were union members last year. While on the other end of the spectrum, in the five states with the lowest union rates, less than 4% of all employees were members.
There are numerous variables that shape whether unions have a strong or weak presence in a state, including industry composition, labor laws and political orientation. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and y Unionstats.com, these are the states with the highest and lowest levels of union participation:
- New York
- Rhode Island
50. North Carolina
47. South Carolina
With Michigan coming on board in 2012, almost half of all states in the U.S. have now adopted so-called “right to work” laws. These laws prohibit employers from requiring union membership as a prerequisite for employment. The outcome is that many many workers decline the option of paying union fees – weakening the unions themselves. All 10 of the states with the lowest proportional union membership are right to work states. On the other hand, only 2 of the 10 states with the most robust union membership — Michigan and Nevada — have such laws.
Yet Unionstats founder Barry Hirsch argues that even though these laws may diminish a union’s financial base, the overall impact may not be as significant as some assume. “Right to work is important symbolically as a sign of a pro-business [or] anti-union environment,” Hirsch added.
A better predictor of union representation in a given state is the number of government employees. While the public sector is certainly dwarfed by the private sector in terms of total employment, public sector workers are statistically much more likely to join a union. Nationwide, union membership exceeded 35% for public sector employees, including public school teachers, firefighters, police officers and mail carriers. In New York, which is the most unionized state in the U.S., 70% of public sector employees were union members, the highest percentage in the nation. By contrast, in North Carolina, the nation’s least unionized state, slightly less than 10% were union members.
Within the private sector, a unionized workforce is much less common, with only 6.7% membership. Since 2000, the private sector has driven the lion’s share of the decline in union membership, while the rates of public sector workers in unions has stayed nearly even, Hirsch noted. “Public sector members now account for half of all members despite being only [one-sixth] of the workforce,” he added.
In many cases, high union membership is related to the presence of industries where unions traditionally have strong representation, such as construction and manufacturing. In 2014, 14% of all construction sector workers, and 10% of all manufacturing workers, are union members.
In addition to these industry factors, Hirsch also explains that history has played a part in shaping unionization rates. “States that historically had high unionization in manufacturing are now more likely to have high unionized hospitals and grocery stores, and vice-versa,” he explained. In turn, when young workers have not been exposed to unions through friends and family members, “these workers are far less likely to support union organizing.”