Unionization in this country varies widely from state to state. In places like New York and Alaska, more than 20% of workers were union members in 2012. In states like Arkansas and North Carolina, the number was closer to 3%. The concentration of unions in states has a lot to do with their employment base and political atmosphere. But one thing is clear, only seven states have seen the percentage of workers in unions increase in the past 10 years, and things are not looking up for organized labor. Based on data collected by the Bureau of Labor statistics and calculations by Unionstats.com, 24/7 Wall St. identified the states with the strongest and weakest unions.
Late last year, Michigan, one of the most unionized states in the country, passed right-to-work legislation. It thus became the 24th state in the country to make it illegal for employers to require workers to join a union or pay dues. The widespread adoption of these laws threatens the long-term future of unions. All 10 of the states with the lowest union membership are right-to-work states. Only two of the 10 states with the highest union membership are right-to-work, and one of those is Michigan, which only passed its law in December.
The concentration of unions depends in part on the representation of government employees. While they make up a smaller segment of the workforce than the private sector does, public employees — including teachers, postal workers, police officers and firefighters — are much more likely to be union members. In New York, 1.35 million of the state’s nearly 8 million workers were in public sector jobs in 2012, and a nation-high 72% of those workers were in unions. A lack of public sector unionization can also dramatically affect a state’s overall rank. In North Carolina, the least-unionized state in the country overall, just 8.8% of public workers were union members.
The private sector is much less unionized. As of 2012, just 6.6% of the nation’s public workers were card-carrying members of organized labor groups. However, because the private sector is so much larger, concentration of unions in some industries can make a major difference. In states like Michigan and Illinois, more than 10% of employees in the private sector were in unions. A lot of this has to do with the composition of the state’s private sector. In Michigan, 18.4% of all jobs are in manufacturing, a traditionally highly unionized sector.
Both public and private sector union jobs have declined dramatically in recent years. According to Unionstats founder Barry Hirsch, different factors have impacted the public and private sectors. The decline of government union workers is more pronounced in places that were hit harder by the recession, needed to make budget cuts and had the political mandate to do so. In states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, Hirsch added, “the public unions have been very convenient political scapegoats.”
In the private sector, the decline has been more widespread in the past 10 years. In all but three states, the proportion of union workers in the private sector fell. The decline has been particularly pronounced in manufacturing, where millions of union and nonunion jobs have been lost. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of manufacturing jobs declined by 17.6% due to the replacement of blue-collar jobs by machines or outsourcing. Over the same period, the number of union workers in manufacturing fell by 45%.
Hirsch noted that as the economy recovers from each recession, job growth does not occur in union-heavy fields. “Jobs are constantly being destroyed and created,” he said, “and both union and non-union jobs are being destroyed, but you don’t see new union jobs being created, which results in a gradual, long-run process that erodes union membership and density.”
In order to identify the states with the strongest and weakest unions in 2012, 24/7 Wall St. used data from Unionstats.com, an online union membership and coverage database. The site, which analyzes Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, provides labor force numbers and union membership in both the private and public sector, including manufacturing and construction. The rankings are based on the percentage of state workers who were union members, but we also refer to the percentage of workers covered by unions, meaning they are in a sector represented by unions, but are not themselves voting members. 24/7 also reviewed December 2012 unemployment rates for each state from the BLS, as well as income and poverty data for 2011 from the U.S. Census Bureau.
These are 24/7 Wall St.’s states with the strongest and weakest unions.
States with the Strongest Unions
> Pct. of workers in unions: 14.8%
> Union workers: 162,349 (23rd highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: 18.9% (2nd largest increase)
> Total employment: 1,100,217 (16th lowest)
By 2012, there were more than 162,000 Nevada workers in unions. This was up 18.9% from 2002, higher growth than any other state except for Texas. A lot of new union members work in the hospitality industry on the Las Vegas strip, and have jobs that cannot be shipped to other states or overseas. Unions representing these workers have had success getting members to pay dues even though Nevada’s right-to-work laws prohibit mandatory payments. Although still smaller than the majority of states, private manufacturing union membership grew 184% between 2002 and 2012, more than any other state. Union membership in private sector manufacturing fell 45% across the U.S. during that time.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 15.8%
> Union workers: 240,658 (16th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: 6.4% (10th largest increase)
> Total employment: 1,527,065 (22nd lowest)
Oregon is one of a minority of states to see union membership increase over the past 10 years. While union membership across the country fell by more than 10% between 2002 and 2012, it rose by 6.4% in the state. Most of this growth came in the state’s public sector, which added more than 20,000 members between 2002 and 2012, an 18.8% increase. While public unions have a strong hold in the state, they face a challenge from state Governor Kitzhaber, who wants to place a cap on the increase of public employee retirement benefits.
8. New Jersey
> Pct. of workers in unions: 16.1%
> Union workers: 611,190 (6th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -14.1% (18th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 3,797,439 (10th highest)
From 2002 through 2012, union membership fell from nearly 20% of New Jersey employees to 16.1%. One reason was a decline in union participation within the construction sector — from 31.6% in 2002 to 24.5% in 2012. Despite this decline, construction unions remain a political force in New Jersey. In recent months, Laborers’ International Union of North America has made news with its endorsement of Governor Chris Christie’s reelection campaign. Additionally, in January, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill allowing localities to hire all-union workforces to repair damaged infrastructure following Superstorm Sandy. Opponents believe such agreements will make projects more expensive, while supporters believe the laws will provide jobs for residents.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 16.6%
> Union workers: 628,798 (5th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -29.9% (6th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 3,784,762 (11th highest)
Although Michigan is more unionized than most states, total union membership declined nearly 30% between 2002 and 2012. However, the decline in union membership was due more to the disappearance of jobs than to anti-unionization. Total employment declined by nearly 11% during the same time — more than any other state — mainly as a result of a weakened auto sector and a 22% decline of total public employment between 2002 and 2012. Michigan is likely to become less union friendly soon. Governor Rick Snyder and his Republican allies passed a right-to-work law, which is scheduled to take effect in late March. Several unions have filed a lawsuit against the new law, and many unions have worked to ratify new contracts with employers before the new law takes effect.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 17.2%
> Union workers: 2,485,040 (the highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -3.6% (29th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 14,488,778 (the highest)
Union membership in California declined slightly — from 17.8% to 17.2% — between 2002 and 2012. However, while private sector union participation declined from 10.2% to 8.9% in that time, public sector participation rose from 55.8% to 58.7%. This represented a net increase of over 57,000 new public sector union members over a period of time in which the state added about 36,500 net jobs. Although California has struggled to limit spending in recent years, public workers remain well compensated. According to the Center For Continuing Study of the California Economy, the average salary for a state employee was $70,777 in 2011 — versus $54,976 for the U.S. as a whole.
5. Rhode Island
> Pct. of workers in unions: 17.8%
> Union workers: 81,120 (17th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: 7.3% (9th largest increase)
> Total employment: 455,284 (8th lowest)
Rhode Island is heavily unionized in both the public and private sectors. Just over 10% of private sector employees are union members, the seventh highest of all states. This is up a full percentage point from 2002, more than any other state. In addition, more than 60% of the state’s public sector employees are union members, more than any other state except for New York. Yet this is down from 65.8% back in 2002. Rhode Island’s 10.2% unemployment rate as of December 2012 was higher than any other state.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 18.5%
> Union workers: 512,855 (9th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: 8.7% (8th largest increase)
> Total employment: 2,776,978 (14th highest)
Between 2002 and 2012, Washington added roughly 79,400 public sector jobs. Over that same time, the public sector added over 76,000 union members, more than any state but Texas. As a result of this growth, public sector union participation jumped from 42.9% in 2002 to 51.1% by 2012 — the second largest increase in the U.S. However, total union membership remained nearly unchanged from 2002 to 2012. This was due to a decline in private sector union participation from 13.6% to 11.1%. However, private union participation in Washington remains higher than all but three other states and well above the 6.6% figure for the nation.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 21.7%
> Union workers: 116,589 (23rd lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -1.6% (30th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 537,784 (9th lowest)
Hawaii is one of just three states where more than 20% of the workforce belongs to a union. A whopping 14.6% of the state’s private sector workers belong to a union, a higher percentage than any other state. Unlike most highly unionized states, unemployment in Hawaii is significantly lower than the national rate. As of December 2012, the unemployment rate was a mere 5.2%, compared to the national rate of 7.8%.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 22.4%
> Union workers: 66,754 (16th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: 5.0% (13th largest increase)
> Total employment: 298,283 (3rd lowest)
Nearly one of every four Alaska workers is covered by a union. A major reason for this is the industries that have higher representation than most of the country. Relative to its population, Alaska has the second largest construction workforce in the country, and the third largest natural resources workforce, which includes oil, gas and timber harvesting occupations. While these private sector industries are important factors, government jobs also play a role in making Alaska the second most union-heavy state in the country. More than one in four employees in the state work for the government, compared to just 15% nationwide, and 54.5% of these are covered by unions, among the highest coverage rates in the country. Last week in Juneau, hundreds of union members came out to protest Mayor Dan Sullivan’s plans to weaken city unions. According to The Anchorage Daily News, the law would “limit raises, eliminate the right to strike and give the Assembly the final word on stalled labor disputes.”
1. New York
> Pct. of workers in unions: 23.2%
> Union workers: 1,836,445 (2nd highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -5.6% (26th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 7,932,316 (3rd highest)
More than 23% of all employees belonged to a labor union in 2012. In the public sector, membership was at 71%. Both figures are significantly higher than for any other state in the U.S. In the private sector, New York’s 13.3% membership rate is second only to Hawaii. While it easily remains at the top of the list, membership declined by 5.6% from 2002 to 2012. The hit has been most evident for private sector workers. Private union membership declined by nearly 10% in those years, compared to a decline of just 1.3% in the public sector.
States with the Weakest Unions
> Pct. of workers in unions: 5.2% (tied for 9th lowest)
> Union workers: 125,557 (25th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: 8.7% (7th largest increase)
> Total employment: 2,433,824 (21st highest)
Just over 5% of the state’s workers were members of labor unions in 2012, down from 5.6% in 2002 and from 6% in 2011. Arizona is one of a handful of states where private sector union membership expanded between 2002 and 2012, growing by more than 16%. However, the state’s conservative leadership has increasingly become hostile toward these groups. In 2012, Governor Jan Brewer announced her support for legislation to weaken labor unions. Among the proposals were laws prohibiting public labor unions from collective bargaining, ending automatic payroll deductions for union dues and stripping civil-service protections for state employees, making it easier to fire them. The legislation was not passed.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 5.2% (tied for 9th lowest)
> Union workers: 60,829 (13th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: 3.2% (17th largest increase)
> Total employment: 1,181,074 (19th lowest)
Utah added over 232,000 jobs between 2002 and 2012, growing employment statewide by a nation-high 24.5%. But over that period the state added less than 2,000 union members. Among the reasons was a large decline in the percentage of public workers who were part of unions — from 21.3% to 15.8%. By comparison, 35.9% of public sector employees are part of a union nationwide. But despite limited and falling union membership among state employees, a bill was introduced earlier this year that would ban collective bargaining on issues not related to wages or benefits by state and local government workers. Opponents argue the bill is not needed, because Utah allows individuals the right to work in union-heavy occupations without either joining the union or paying dues.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest)
> Union workers: 29,216 (4th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -25.2% (9th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 613,845 (11th lowest)
Although the number of jobs in Idaho increased by more than 11% between 2002 and 2012, union membership declined by a quarter in the same time period. The decline was dispersed relatively evenly across the public and private sectors, with membership falling 21.5% and 28.1%, respectively. In January 2012, a federal judge ruled that a pair of anti-union laws passed by the conservative Idaho legislature violated federal law. As passed, these laws prohibited “job targeting programs” that used union dues to help contractors win bids and also banned “project labor agreements” that allowed contractors to sign agreements with union workers while concurrently bidding on public projects.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest)
> Union workers: 124,331 (24th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -43.8% (the largest decrease)
> Total employment: 2,590,205 (18th highest)
Union membership in Tennessee fell by more than 43% from 2002 to 2012, the largest decline in the nation. In that time, the percentage of workers who were part of a union fell from 9.1% to just 4.8%. Among public sector workers, the decline was even more pronounced — from 22.6% to 14.7%. The state is a right-to-work state. Advocates contend such laws attract jobs, while critics believe they make recruiting union members difficult and ultimately leads to decreased wages.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest)
> Union workers: 170,726 (20th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -21.7% (14th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 3,912,100 (8th highest)
Between 2002 and 2012, Georgia added over 300,000 workers, one of the largest employment increases in the nation during that time. However, because the number of union workers declined by over 47,000, union participation fell from an already-low 6% to just 4.4%. Between 2002 and 2012, public union participation fell from 18.6% to just 10.5% — lower than all but four other states. Although more than 130,000 new public sector jobs were created over those 10 years, union membership fell by nearly 30% among public employees. Last year, only 3.1% of private sector employees were affiliated with a union — among the lowest percentages of all states in the U.S.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest)
> Union workers: 159,512 (24th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -18.8% (15th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 3,594,507 (12th highest)
Virginia has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country in both the private and public sectors. A mere 3% of private sector workers in the state were unionized in 2012. Just over 10% of public sector employees were covered by a union in 2012, a lower percentage than all but two states and down from 15.6% in 2002. Labor unions did eke out a small victory in January, when the Virginia Senate narrowly rejected a proposal to add right-to-work provisions to the state constitution. The state’s right-to-work law is still in effect by statute.
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.3%
> Union workers: 47,875 (8th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -32.2% (3rd largest decrease)
> Total employment: 1,115,953 (17th lowest)
Total union membership in Mississippi was just over 4% last year, with total membership declining nearly a third in the past 10 years. Private union membership was cut in half between 2002 and 2012, falling from 6% to 3%. This was one of the largest decreases of all states. However, membership in public sector unions actually rose nearly 12%, significantly more than any of the bottom 10 states on this list. The economic situation in Mississippi is especially grim. The state’s median household income of $36,919 was the lowest in the U.S., as was the poverty rate of 22.6%.
3. South Carolina
> Pct. of workers in unions: 3.3%
> Union workers: 58,413 (12th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -29.3% (7th largest decrease)
> Total employment: 1,773,172 (24th highest)
Just one in 30 workers in South Carolina belongs to a union, one of the lowest rates in the country. A paltry 1.3% of private sector workers in the state belong to a union, the lowest percentage in the entire country. Over the past 10 years, private sector union membership declined by 61.7%, more than any other state except for Arkansas. The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, has taken a vocal anti-union stance since taking office in 2011. In an interview with Fox News back in 2012, Haley said: “There’s a reason that South Carolina’s the new ‘it’ state. It’s because we are a union buster.”
> Pct. of workers in unions: 3.2%
> Union workers: 36,667 (6th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -42.1% (2nd largest decrease)
> Total employment: 1,155,140 (18th lowest)
Arkansas has the second smallest percentage of unionized workers, due primarily to the decline in private sector membership. Between 2002 and 2012, private sector union membership dropped by almost 62%. As of 2012, a mere 1.4% of private sector workers were covered by labor unions, lower than any other state except for South Carolina. Union manufacturing jobs in the state decreased by nearly 75% over the past 10 years, while total manufacturing employment decreased by just 20.6%. Arkansas is one of just a handful of states where right-to-work laws are embedded in the state’s constitution.
1. North Carolina
> Pct. of workers in unions: 2.9%
> Union workers: 111,482 (21st lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -1.3% (31st largest decrease)
> Total employment: 3,804,593 (9th highest)
With just 2.9% of employees in a labor union in 2012, North Carolina is the least-unionized state in the entire country. Only 1.8% of private sector workers were members of a labor union as of 2012, lower than any state except for South Carolina and Arkansas. In addition, only 8.8% of public employees in the state belong to a union, the lowest rate in the country. While the number of public sector jobs grew 20% between 2002 and 2012, the percentage of public workers unionized declined from 10.5% in 2002. Although many right-to-work proponents claim that deunionization helps spur job creation, North Carolina’s lack of union representation has not led to low unemployment — the unemployment rate in the state as of December 2012 was 9.2%, the fifth highest rate in the country.