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Jan 27, 2014

By Michael J. Lotito

While the overall percentage of union membership in the U.S. workforce remained unchanged at 11.3 percent in 2013, there was a slight increase in the number of unionized workers in the private sector for the first time since 2009, according to the new Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual report.

On the whole, 16 million U.S. workers were represented by unions in 2013. This total includes workers who are union members (14.5 million) and those who are not union members, but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.5 million).

The percentage of private sector workers belonging to a union rose from 6.6 percent in 2012 to 6.7 percent in 2013. Total private sector jobs covered by union contracts similarly increased from 7.3 percent to 7.5 percent.

New York state has highest rate of union membership

Public sector union membership continues to significantly outpace the private sector unionization rate (35.3 percent of public sector workers are union members, compared to the 6.7 percent private sector rate).

In the private sector, the industries with the highest union membership rates in 2013 were utilities (25.6 percent), transportation and warehousing (19.6 percent), telecommunications (14.4 percent), and construction (14.1 percent). Private sector workers least likely to be union members were employed in agriculture and related industries (1 percent), the financial sector (1 percent), and in food service and drinking establishments (1.3 percent).

The states with the highest rates of union membership include New York (24.4 percent), Alaska (23.1 percent), and Hawaii (22.1 percent). The states with the lowest rates include North Carolina (3 percent), Arkansas (3.5 percent), Mississippi, and South Carolina (both 3.7 percent).

Union organizing strategy is changing

Individuals with the highest rates of union membership tended to be older (55-64 years old), male, and African-American.

The slight increase in private sector unionization this year might be attributed to the rise in construction and manufacturing jobs. Unions, however, have also been altering their organizing strategies to target demographics that have been less likely to unionize.

Organized labor has also begun to partner with worker centers and other grass-roots organizations to expand its reach. If the private sector unionization rate continues to climb this year, the next BLS report may serve as evidence that this strategy shift is succeeding.

This was originally published on Littler Mendelson’s D.C. Employment Law Update blog. © 2014 Littler Mendelson. All Rights Reserved. Littler®, Employment & Labor Law Solutions Worldwide® and ASAP® are registered trademarks of Littler Mendelson, P.C.

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