Labor unions (that is, organized groups of workers in a given trade) have changed the nature of labor relations in the United States. Through collective bargaining, unions have fought to earn workers’ rights that many of us take for granted, including weekends off, a 40-hour workweek and paid vacations.
As the global economy has become increasingly interconnected, however, foreign competition has resulted in weakening union power in much of the country. Traditional union demands for better working conditions, benefits and pay have made it more difficult for American companies to compete in an international market where labor is cheap. This has been especially true for the manufacturing sector — American automakers in particular.
With plants closing amid global competition and companies demanding more leeway, the share of U.S. workers who were union members has been on the decline since the 1980s. Union membership rate nationwide shrank from 11.9% in 2010 to 10.8% in 2020.
Union participation is anything but uniform across all states. In some parts of the country, union membership has fallen to levels not seen nationally since the 1980s. Using state-level data on the share of workforces that belong to a labor union, 24/7 Wall St. identified the state with the strongest unions.
Based on our criteria, South Carolina is the state with the weakest unions. Some 2.9% of the state’s workers are in a labor union, which is 59,149 people. The change in union membership from 2010 to 2020 was −1.7%, the 11th lowest among all states. The average annual wage in the state was $44,380, the seventh lowest in America. The most unionized occupational group was production.
South Carolina is the only state where less than 3% of workers are union members. As is the case in many other states, production occupations, such as manufacturing, have the highest concentration of union membership in South Carolina.
Generally, the states where labor union participation is weakest are those that have strong anti-union laws. Perhaps the most common and effective anti-union measures are so-called right-to-work laws, which prohibit companies from requiring employees to join a union or pay dues. The term “right-to-work” is misleading, as in no way do these laws guarantee employment for those seeking it. Instead, they erode the strength of unions, diminishing their collective bargaining power. South Carolina is a right-to-work state.
Nationwide, the typical union member earns about 19% more than the typical worker with no union affiliation does. Not surprisingly, states with greater union participation also tend to have higher average annual wages.
Our methodology: To determine the states with the strongest and weakest unions, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed union membership statistics from UnionStats, a database powered by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. States were ranked based on the number of workers in unions as a percentage of total employment. Additional data on historical union membership and union membership by sector also came from UnionStats. Supplemental data on annual median wage came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics program and is for 2019.
Click here to see which states have the strongest and weakest unions.
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