Union Membership Rate Stays Steady in 2017

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By Jaclyn Diaz

The union membership rate remained largely unchanged in 2017, with about 10.7 percent of U.S. workers belonging to unions, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Jan. 19.

A nominal increase was seen in union membership compared with 2016. The number of workers belonging to unions was 14.8 million in 2017, an increase from the 2016 rate of about 14.6 million. Labor is taking this increase as a reflection of “a growing movement of working people,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.

Organizing work done by the professional and information industry unions like Communications Workers of America, the Writers Guild of America East, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of Government Employees drove this growth, the AFL-CIO said. Interest by young workers also helped increase unionization rates, the labor federation said.

The statistics also indicate that the union membership rate for public sector workers and men remained higher than that of women and private sector workers. The rate of public sector worker unionization is at 34.4 percent, which is five times higher than that of private sector workers at 6.5 percent. The rate of male union membership remained at 11.4 percent compared with the 10 percent of women who joined unions.

The rate of unionization for 2017 is still much lower than 24 years ago, which the BLS said was first year for which comparable union data were available. The union membership rate in 1983 was 20.1 percent, and 17.7 million workers belonged to unions.

Professional Employees, Teachers Spur Growth

The union membership rate was highest in professions in local government, which includes teachers, police officers, and firefighters. Private sector industries with high unionization rates included utilities, transportation and warehousing, telecommunications, and construction.

The American Federation of Teachers has seen membership steadily increase over the past decade, the union said. AFT went from 1.4 million in July 2008, to 1.7 million members by August 2017, when 40,000 educators in Puerto Rico joined the union.

Organizing efforts by public sector unions and employment growth have provided an opportunity for this union growth, the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees has said.

Last week, the DPE announced nearly 90,000 people joined professional unions in 2017, based on the department’s analysis.

“Public sector unions have really intensified their effort to bring in new workers and members,” Katie Barrows, research and communications associate for DPE, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 12 when discussing growth in public sector unions. “Our unions that are part of our coalition have worked really hard to increase membership.”

Employment gains across all sectors also could be part of the growth, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bloomberglaw.com

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