The once formidable power of labor unions has declined considerably in the United States. More than 20% of U.S. workers belonged to a union in 1983. Today, just over one in 10 U.S. workers are union members. While unions are virtually non-existent in some parts of the country, like Charleston, South Carolina, a number of urban areas remain union strongholds.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of workers who belong to a union in U.S. metro areas from the online database Unionstats.com. At least 25% of workers in 14 U.S. metro areas are members of unions. The Springfield, Illinois area leads the nation by a large margin with a union membership rate of 37.1%.
David Macpherson is the E.M. Stevens professor of economics and department chair at Trinity University, as well as one of the creators of Unionstats.com. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Macpherson attributed strong union membership to the concentration of public sector jobs as well as to the political attitude towards collective bargaining.
The lack of competition in the public sector makes it more union friendly. “If you raise taxes to pay higher pension benefits, that’s not going to drive [the government] out of business,” Macpherson said.
Nationally, 35.2% of public sector workers are union members, more than five times the 6.7% private sector union membership rate. More than 20% of workers in eight of the 14 cities with the highest union membership rates are employed by the public sector. By contrast, 15.4% of workers nationwide are employed by the public sector.
Most metropolitan areas on this list are located in states that have provided more favorable environments for unions. Only three of the 14 metropolitan areas are states that have passed right-to-work laws. Under these laws, workers cannot be required to pay union dues if they are non union members. All 11 metropolitan areas where 1% or less of all workers are unionized are in right-to-work states.
There are benefits to union membership. A typical union member nationwide earns $980 per week, versus the median weekly wage of $776 of non-union workers. The typical worker earns more than the national median wage in the nine of the 14 highly unionized metropolitan areas. While a number of factors determine wages in a given area, the high unionization in these cities likely contributes at least partially to higher wages.
Black Workers, Unions, and Inequality, a study published this August by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, found that largely because black workers are more likely to be unionized than any other race or ethnicity, the decline in unionization has contributed to overall wage inequality. The report argues that attacking unions can have a disproportionately large impact on black Americans. Not only do black workers benefit more than most workers from union membership, but also the states in which union membership is declining the most are primarily in the southern U.S., where a disproportionately large share of black Americans live.
According to the labor department, workers with a high school diploma but not a college degree are among the most likely beneficiaries of union memberships. This particular group tends to be relatively large in the 14 cities on this list, where high school attainment rates tend to be above average but college attainment rates tend to be lower than in most U.S. cities.
Based on figures published by Unionstats.com, an online union membership and coverage database, 24/7 Wall St. identified the metropolitan areas with the highest and lowest union membership as a percentage of the total workforce. The database, which analyzes Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Current Population Survey, provides labor force and union membership figures in both the public and private sectors, including manufacturing and construction. Additionally, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed annual average unemployment rates for each state from the BLS, as well as income and poverty data from the 2014 American Community Survey, produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.
These are the cities with the strongest unions.