Labor Stats and Facts: In Labor v. the South, the Numbers Are on the South's Side

In the wake of the UAW's narrow loss at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant, AFL-CIO leaders have vowed to step up efforts to organize workers in Southern states. But the latest U.S. union membership figures illustrate just how daunting a challenge that will be.

Heralding a new labor organizational push in the South, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Feb. 17 that membership has grown in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas. I checked the Labor Department and Census data in our annual Union Membership and Earnings Data Book, and the numbers bear that out. Membership—measured in both total employees and percentage of workforce—was higher in 2013 than in 2012 for the first four states. Texas’s 2013 union stats were down from 2012 (and 2011 and 2010, for that matter), but they’re still better than, say, 2008.

But for every Southern state that shows an increase in unionization, there’s another that shows a decline. In Mississippi, for example, membership levels are the lowest since at least 1990, and probably ever. The truth is, of the 16 states that populate the vast expanse of what the U.S. Census Bureau calls the “South,”   roughly half report a higher union density rate in any given year. A comparison of 2013 and 2011 rates, for example, shows an increase in eight states and a decrease in eight states. 

Yearly fluctuations aside, what can’t be disputed is that the South is, statistically speaking, the least union-friendly spot on the U.S. map. Twelve of its 16 states are right-to-work states.  Including D.C., the South region is home to more than one-third of the country’s employees, but less than one-fifth of its union members. The whole region has only slightly more unionized workers than the state of California does all by itself.  

What’s more, 10 of the country’s 15 least unionized states are in the South. This group includes North Carolina, which in 2013 ranked last for the eighth consecutive year with a 3.0 percent membership rate. Also among the least unionized states: Tennessee (37), Georgia (40), South Carolina (48), and Texas (43)—four of the states touted by Trumka.