U.S. union membership rate holds steady

The reported rate of union membership in 2015, 11.1 percent, was unchanged from 2014.
The reported rate of union membership in 2015, 11.1 percent, was unchanged from 2014.

Slightly more than one in 10 U.S. workers last year were union members, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday.

The reported percentage of the total workforce for 2015 — 11.1 percent — was unchanged from 2014. About 14.8 million workers were union members last year, compared to about 14.6 million the year before.

More than 1.6 million additional workers were represented by unions last year on their jobs but were not union members.

The percentage of U.S. workers belonging to unions has been slipping steadily. In 1983, the first year the bureau kept comparable data, the national union membership rate was 20.1 percent. That year, there were 17.7 million union workers.

Union membership totals largely reflect the role of the public sector in collective bargaining. In the public sector, more than one-third of workers are union members, a rate five times as great as the 6.7 percent union membership rate in the private sector.

The annual report also itemized the economic benefit of union membership. Among full-time wage and salary workers last year, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $980, compared to $776 for nonunion workers.

According to the collected data, workers most likely to be unionized were in protective service, education, training and library jobs. The lowest unionization rates were in agriculture, finance and insurance, and food service.

Men had slightly higher rates of union membership — 11.5 percent — compared to 10.6 percent for women.

Among the states, New York, Alaska and Hawaii had the highest union membership rates, with about one in five workers being union members. States with the lowest union membership rates were South Carolina at 2.1 percent and North Carolina at 3 percent. Utah, Georgia, and Texas also had membership rates under 5 percent.

Missouri and Kansas had comparable union membership rates of 8.8 percent and 8.7 percent.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month heard a case that could weaken government unions across the country. A majority of justices appeared ready to rule in favor of the plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The plaintiffs in that case argued that they shouldn’t have to pay union dues if they disagree with their union’s positions.

Under California law, public employees must pay a “fair share service fee” or “agency fee” equivalent to members’ dues if they choose not to join a union but are represented by a union’s collective bargaining. More than 20 states have similar laws.

If the justices rule that such public workers shouldn’t be compelled to pay the fees under their First Amendment rights, public unions in every state are expected to lose income and suffer what union advocates say would be a death watch. The decision wouldn’t have an immediate effect on the total number of workers represented by unions, though, nor would it affect private-sector unions.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford