Government Cuts Kept U.S. Union Rate at Record Low in 2011

The rate of union membership in the U.S. fell to a record low in 2011 for a second-straight year, as a loss of government jobs partially offset a rise in private-sector employees, the Labor Department said.

Labor unions represented 6.9 percent of employees in private companies, unchanged from 2010 and down from 7.2 percent in 2009, according to data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate in the public sector was 37 percent.

The total union membership rate -- reflecting both public and private-sector workers -- was 11.8 percent, down from 11.9 percent in 2010. The number of unionized workers went up by about 50,000, to 14.8 million.

“We may have reached a level where the union numbers simply can’t decline anymore, but if you’re not expanding, how can you call yourself a movement?” Gary Chaison, a labor professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said in a telephone interview. “Unions simply can’t make any gains in the private sector because it’s so expensive to organize. In the public sector, the layoffs of teachers and firefighters are really where the labor movement is hurting.”

Education Leads

Workers in education, training and library occupations had the highest unionization rate, the Labor Department said. Among states, New York again had the highest union membership rate at 24 percent, while North Carolina had the lowest, at 2.9 percent.

The report also showed the average weekly earnings of union workers was $938, while non-union workers were paid $729.

In 1983, the first year the agency collected the data, 20.1 percent of the U.S. workforce and 16.8 percent of company workers were members of a union.

The number of private-sector workers who are represented by a union rose to 7.2 million from 7.1 million last year, while in the public sector it fell 61,000 to 7.6 million.

“Despite an unprecedented volley of partisan political attacks on workers’ rights and the continuing insecurity of our economic crisis, union membership increased slightly last year,” Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s president, said in a statement. “It is telling that our country begins to recover the jobs lost during the Great Recession, good union jobs are beginning to come back.”

The number of government workers fell to 20.5 million, from 21 million, the Labor Department said.

The number of union workers who are black increased slightly, to 1.92 million, or 13.5 percent, from 1.89 million, or 13.4 percent. The number of Latino union workers rose about 6,000 to 1.82 million, though their percentage of the workforce fell to 9.7 percent from 10 percent as nearly a half million more Latinos were employed, according to the Labor Department statistics.

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