Management & Labor

States Where Union Membership is Highest, Declining the Most

While union membership has slowly waned over the past several decades, some states are recording steeper declines than others.
by | January 27, 2014
Thousands of state workers gather at the Oregon State Capitol. Oregon is one of the top states in the country when it comes to union membership. AP/Rick Bowmer

While union membership has slowly waned over the past several decades, some states are recording steeper declines than others.

For the most part, updated Labor Department estimates published Friday indicate union membership changed little last year, at least nationally. About 14.5 million workers belonged to a union, accounting for 11.3 percent of all employees.

New York is home to the highest concentration of workers of any state at 24.4 percent, followed by Alaska (23.1 percent) and Hawaii (22.1 percent). In North Carolina, only a mere 3 percent of the workforce was unionized -- the lowest share nationally.

Much of the variation is explained by industries most prevalent in each state. Alaska, for example, employs a large number of public employees, who belong to unions at far greater rates than private sector workers (see below). Also, 24 states have adopted right-to-work provisions, outlawing unions' requirement of membership as a condition of obtaining employment.

Most states did not experience significant shifts in membership last year, but looking back a bit further shows notable changes for a few states. Connecticut’s union membership dipped from 16.7 percent of the workforce in 2010 to 13.5 percent last year, more than other state over the three-year period.

Going back 10 years provides a much clearer picture of the decline. Here’s a list of states recording the largest drops in membership, with percentages referring to the unionized share of the total workforce:

State Change 2003 Share of Workforce 2013 Share of Workforce
Michigan -5.6% 21.9% 16.3%
Missouri -4.6% 13.2% 8.6%
Ohio -4.1% 16.7% 12.6%
Wisconsin -3.6% 15.9% 12.3%
New Jersey -3.5% 19.5% 16.0%
Maryland -2.7% 14.3% 11.6%
Minnesota -2.7% 17.0% 14.3%
Indiana -2.5% 11.8% 9.3%
Pennsylvania -2.4% 15.1% 12.7%
Idaho -2.3% 7.0% 4.7%
Source: BLS, Annual Average Share of Employed Persons

It’s no surprise that union membership plummeted in Michigan, likely due in large part to auto industry jobs lost. Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers also passed legislation making Michigan a right-to-work state in late 2012. The law only became effective last spring, though, so it's unlikely to have pushed union membership estimates down just yet.

Other states have not seen union jobs decline all that much. Over the decade, about half of states experienced only slight drops in membership. A few, including Alaska (+2.6 percent) and Vermont (+1.2), actually registered gains.

Union membership peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, accounting for about a quarter of the workforce. It has since slowly declined to the current 11.3 percent.

The following chart shows the average annual percentages of all employed workers who belong to unions:

The past few years, union membership has fluctuated little. One reason for this is that labor unions continue to enjoy strong support in the public sector. For last year, the Labor Department tallied about 7.2 million public employee union members. That accounts for about 35 percent of the sector's workforce -- about where it's been for the past 30 years.

By contrast, only 6.7 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions last year. Thirty years ago, that share was a far greater 16.8 percent of all private industry employees.

The Labor Department does not publish public sector union affiliation data at the state level.

Union Representation State Map

The following map shows states where employees represented by unions account for the highest share of the workforce in 2013, with larger percentages shaded darker. Union representation, in most states, is slightly higher than union membership (a separate measure). Please zoom out to view Alaska and Hawaii.

Source: Current Population Survey, BLS

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