The States With the Strongest and Weakest Unions

June 22, 2015 by Sam Stebbins


In 1973, 24% of all U.S. wage and salary workers were members of unions. Since then, organized labor participation has steadily declined. Over the past decade, nationwide union membership declined 7.1%.

Despite the decline, some states remain union strongholds. Nearly one-quarter of New York’s employed population was a member of a union, the highest proportion in the nation. In North Carolina, on the other hand, less than 2% of workers participated in labor organizations, the lowest share in the country.

Click here to see the states with the strongest unions

Click here to see the states with the weakest unions

The long-term decline in the unionization of American workers is due to a range of factors, explained David Macpherson, E.M. Stevens Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Trinity University. For one, heavily unionized industries such as manufacturing and construction have shrunk over the years due largely to globalization, deregulation, and more competition. With U.S. companies having to compete on the global market, “the high union wages have actually helped contribute to that shrinking because they’re less competitive with [wages] in the rest of the world,” said Macpherson.

Other forces have also been at work. Mcpherson added that the average company size has decreased somewhat across the country, which makes it harder for workers to organize. More and more companies are also moving to the south and west, which generally have laws less favorable for unions. In addition, “there’s been decreased confidence in the ability of unions to increase the welfare for workers,” according to Mcpherson.

The recent economic downturn may partly explain the weakening of American unionization. Mcpherson said union members are more likely to get laid off during economic downturns because their wages are often based on fixed multi-year contracts. Ironically, with less wage flexibility, employers often lay off unionized workers instead of lowering their wages.

While the relationship between union participation and the labor market is complex, the 2014 unemployment rates in eight of the 10 states with the strongest union participation rates exceeded the national unemployment rate of 6.2%. The unemployment rates in seven of the 10 states with the weakest union participation, on the other hand, were below the national rate.

Of course, there are also tangible benefits for the union members themselves and all the workers covered by collective bargaining agreements. There are the obvious benefits, which include the ability to bargain for a higher wage and better working conditions.

There are also benefits for employers, while many believe union work rules can hurt productivity, Mcpherson explained that worker turnover is far lower among union members, which lowers hiring costs for companies. More experienced workers further lower costs by training younger workers on the job.

Labor organization is an extremely controversial subject, and the prevalence of unions is often a reflection of how people and politicians feel about the issue. Many of these states are expressly anti-union. Today, 24 states prohibit union security agreements, restrictions known as right to work laws. All of the states with the lowest union membership had right to work laws, while none of the states with the highest union membership has such laws. As Mcpherson noted, however, right to work laws and union membership are likely not causally related. The failure of unions to flourish is less due to the right-to-work laws themselves, and more to do with the climate that gave rise to those laws in the first place.

Based on figures published by Unionstats.com, an online union membership and coverage database, 24/7 Wall St. identified the states with the highest and lowest union membership as a percentage of total employment. 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 sector, 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 2013 American Community Survey, produced by the U.S. Census Bureau. Rates of change were calculated over 10-year periods, from 2005 through 2014.

These are the states with the strongest and weakest unions

States With the Strongest Unions

10. Connecticut
> Pct. of workers in unions:
14.8%
> Union workers: 231,060 (17th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -6.3% (25th smallest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 6.6% (14th highest)

Nearly 15% of Connecticut workers were members of a union, the 10th highest share nationwide. While Connecticut has stronger union membership than the vast majority of states, participation is waning. From 2005 through last year, the state’s total union membership count declined by 6.3%. However, this was not one of the larger decreases, as union membership has been declining across the nation. As in most of the states with the strongest unions, Connecticut residents were well educated — more than 37% of adults had at least a bachelor’s degree, the fourth highest percentage in the country.

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8. Rhode Island
> Pct. of workers in unions:
15.1%
> Union workers: 68,275 (16th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -13.3% (15th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 7.7% (3rd highest)

Rhode Island and Illinois are tied for the eighth highest union membership, at 15.1% of the workforce. Public employees are far more likely to join unions than private employees, and this was especially the case in Rhode Island. Nearly 67% of public employees were union members, the second highest share nationwide. While unions are intended to empower workers, the prevalence of unions does not guarantee a healthy labor market. In fact, like most of the states with the strongest unions, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate of 7.7% was well above the national rate of 6.2%. Macpherson suggested that strong union participation can actually mean a less flexible labor market, especially in an economic downturn. If employers are unable to lower wages for workers under collective bargaining agreements, they may choose layoffs as an alternative.

8. Illinois
> Pct. of workers in unions:
15.1%
> Union workers: 829,757 (3rd highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -10.5% (18th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 7.1% (7th highest)

Slightly more than 5% of Illinois’ workforce was employed in construction, the third lowest percentage nationwide. However, Illinois construction workers are part of one of the most unionized industries in the country. Nearly 37% of private construction workers in Illinois were union members, the second highest participation rate in the industry, after only Hawaii. Nearly 13% of Illinois workers in the manufacturing sector, one of the higher percentages nationwide, and nearly 13% of those workers were union members — also one of the higher such rates.

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7. Oregon
> Pct. of workers in unions:
15.6%
> Union workers: 243,177 (16th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: +14.3% (6th largest increase)
> Unemployment rate: 6.9% (9th highest)

Most of the states with the highest union membership rates saw declines in union membership over the past 10 years. In Oregon, however, unions actually added more than 30,000 members from 2005 through last year, an increase of 14.3% — each among the largest growths of all states. In June, Oregon’s legislature passed a bill mandating 40 hours of paid sick leave per year for all employees. The new law will take effect on January 1, 2016 provided that Governor Kate Brown signs the bill — which she is widely expected to do. Only three other states have passed such legislation. The bill is perhaps further indication of the strong support of labor rights and unions in the state.

6. California
> Pct. of workers in unions:
16.3%
> Union workers: 2,468,827 (the highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: +1.9% (16th largest increase)
> Unemployment rate: 7.5% (4th highest)

California was one of only a few states where union membership actually increased from 2005 through last year. Over that period, the number of union members in the state grew by roughly 2%. In contrast, union membership fell 7.1% across the nation. Roughly 250,000 workers are members of The California Teamsters Public Affairs Council — Teamsters are one of the largest unions in North America. Overall, the state has nearly 2.5 million union members. Last year, the Teamsters started organizing Uber and Lyft drivers under the California App-Based Drivers Association. Uber and Lyft, both California startups, have so far considered drivers as contractors, which means the drivers and not the companies assume the expenses. A recent labor court decision, however, found that at least one driver should be considered an employee rather than contractor. This decision could have far reaching implications for the companies and the drivers.

5. New Jersey
> Pct. of workers in unions:
16.5%
> Union workers: 637,159 (5th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -19.5% (9th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 6.6% (14th highest)

There were 154,113 fewer union members in New Jersey last year than there were in 2005, the third largest drop in the country. This decline of roughly 20% of the total organized labor force occurred in both the private and public sectors, but the biggest shift was in non-government positions. The private sector, which added roughly 75,000 jobs overall, had roughly 90,000 fewer union workers last year compared to 2005. Still, New Jersey continues to have strong representation by organized labor. More than 62% of all government workers in the state were union members, the third highest such percentage nationwide.

4. Washington
> Pct. of workers in unions:
16.8%
> Union workers: 490,112 (9th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -6.3% (25th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 6.2% (22nd highest)

Washington has among the strongest union participation rates in the United States, but like in most parts of the country, membership is declining. There were roughly 33,200 fewer employed union members last year than there were a decade prior. Still, Washington’s unions have a strong presence in the state, and in the manufacturing sector In particular. Nearly 20% of all manufacturing workers were union members, roughly double national union membership rate in the manufacturing industry across the country.

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3. Hawaii
> Pct. of workers in unions:
21.7%
> Union workers: 124,241 (23rd lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -11.6% (16th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 4.4% (9th lowest)

Hawaii has one of the larger shares of construction workers in the country, with 7% of the labor force employed in the industry, the 11th most in the country. Construction workers in the state are also much more likely than average construction worker nationwide to be part of a union. While nationally less than 15% of construction workers were union members, nearly 39% of Hawaii’s construction workers were unionized, higher than in any state. Union membership in Hawaii was also above average in manufacturing employment. More than 21% of workers in the sector were unionized, compared to just 9.7% of manufacturing workers nationwide.

2. Alaska
> Pct. of workers in unions:
22.8%
> Union workers: 69,949 (17th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: +11.7% (8th largest increase)
> Unemployment rate: 6.8% (11th highest)

Alaska had the highest share of government employees than any other state, at 23.5% of workers, nearly 10 percentage points more than the national share. Those government employees were also among the most likely in the country to be union members. While nationally, roughly 35% of public sector employees were unionized, more than 54% of government workers in Alaska were. Unlike in many of the states with strong representation of organized labor, both the union membership rate and the total membership have increased in Alaska. Over the last 10 years, the state added more than 7,300 union workers — this 11.7% increase was the eighth biggest in the country over that period.

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1. New York
> Pct. of workers in unions:
24.6%
> Union workers: 1,980,075 (2nd highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -5.2% (28th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 6.3% (21st highest)

Even after a reduction of nearly 110,000 union workers over the past 10 years, New York remains the most unionized state in the country. Close to one out of every four workers in the state were union members, more than double the national rate. The state had the highest rate of public sector unionization, with just under three-quarters of government workers represented by unions. Even with such a high rate, government workers accounted for less than half of all organized labor in the state. Nearly 15% of the state’s 6.7 million private sector employees were union members, more than any state in the country.

Click here to see the states with the weakest unions

States With the Weakest Unions

10. North Dakota
> Pct. of workers in unions:
5.0%
> Union workers: 17,705 (3rd lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -15.7% (12th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 2.8% (the lowest)

Just 5% of North Dakota’s workers were union members last year, the 10th lowest union participation rate in the country. Participation has been declining over the years. Over the last 10 years , the state’s workforce lost a net of 3,300 union workers, a decline of 15.7% decrease — the 12th largest percentage drop in the country. While the relationship between unemployment and unionization is complicated, states that had higher unemployment also tended to have larger union representation. On the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota had the lowest annual unemployment rate in the country last year, at just 2.8% of the labor force.

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9. South Dakota
> Pct. of workers in unions:
4.9%
> Union workers: 17,680 (2nd lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -13.9% (13th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 3.4% (3rd )

Union membership in South Dakota declined by roughly 14% in the 10 years through 2014. As is the case nationwide, the public sector had a higher share of unionized workers than the private sector. However, far lower percentages of employees in the state’s private and public sectors were represented by unions — 16% of public employees and 2.5% of private sector workers were in unions. South Dakota’s private sector employed nearly five times as many workers as the public sector, the public sector had nearly 3,000 more unionized workers.

8. Virginia
> Pct. of workers in unions:
4.9%
> Union workers: 178,695 (22nd highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: +8.6% (10th largest increase)
> Unemployment rate: 5.2% (17th lowest)

Barely 5% of Virginia’s active workers were union members, the eighth smallest unionization rate in the country. Relatively few of both government employees and private sector employees were unionized. Just 12.5% of the state’s public sector and 2.7% of its private sector were union members, compared to the respective national shares of 35.7% and 6.6%. Although the state’s union participation rate has remained low, it has increased in recent years. From 2005 through 2014, Virginia had a net increase of more than 14,000 union workers, or 8.6%. Over the same period, national union membership declined by 7.1%.

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7. Texas
> Pct. of workers in unions:
4.8%
> Union workers: 543,434 (8th highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: +7.4% (12th largest growth)
> Unemployment rate: 5.1% (16th lowest)

As the second largest state in the country population wise, Texas was home to more than half a million unionized workers in 2014. However, this figure only comprised 4.8% of the state’s total workforce, the seventh lowest proportion of unionized workers in the country. While it is less common for a worker to be a union member in Texas than it is in most other states, over the last 10 years, union membership has been on the rise in the state. With 37,261 more unionized workers in 2014 than in 2005, the number of union workers has grown by nearly 7.4%, one of the larger growth rates compared to other states.

6. Arkansas
> Pct. of workers in unions:
4.7%
> Union workers: 52,340 (11th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -3.9% (20th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: -3.9% (20th largest decline)

In 2014, Arkansas had just over 52,000 unionized workers, up nearly 15,000 from 2013, or an increase of nearly 39% — the highest such percentage increase nationwide. Even so, from 2005 through 2014, union membership in Arkansas decreased by nearly 4%. According to the Arkansas American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, which helps organize nearly 200 local unions, union workers are far more likely to earn higher wages than workers who do not participate. In addition, according to the group, nearly 80% of union workers received job-provided health insurance, versus around half of nonunion workers.

5. Georgia
> Pct. of workers in unions:
4.3%
> Union workers: 169,624 (23rd highest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -10.7% (17th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 7.2% (6th highest)

Of the more than 3.9 million workers employed in Georgia, just 4.3% were unionized. As of last year, the number of unionized workers in the state decreased by almost 39,000 from the year before, a larger drop than in all but three other states. This is in keeping with the decade-long trend of declining union membership. Since 2005, union membership has dropped by 10.7% across the state. While 7.1% of manufacturing workers were unionized in 2005, only 3.5% were in 2014.

4. Mississippi
> Pct. of workers in unions:
3.7%
> Union workers: 38,007 (7th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -50.7% (the largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 7.8% (2nd highest)

Roughly 38,000 workers were union members last year, a 50.7% drop from the 77,157 unionized workers in 2005. Mississippian public workers were the least likely to participate in unions compared to other states, with a participation rate of just 2.7%, the lowest such percentage nationwide. In contrast, nearly 36% of public workers nationwide were members of unions. While the state might not have the lowest overall membership rate in the country, out of all the states in the country, none had a greater 10-year drop in union membership through 2014 than Mississippi. Despite the sharp long-term decline, the number of union workers in the state increased slightly, by about 0.5%, roughly in line with the nationwide change.

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3. Utah
> Pct. of workers in unions:
3.7%
> Union workers: 45,754 (10th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -9.4% (20th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 3.8% (4th lowest)

With only 3.7% of its workers active members of organized labor, Utah is tied with Mississippi for the third lowest proportion of unionized workers. Out of its total employed population of more than 1.2 million, only 45,754 were union members. Although more than 1 million — the vast majority of Utah’s labor force — works in the private sector, only 2.1% were union members. On the other hand, 11.5% of government workers were unionized. Consequently, the majority of Utah’s union members work in the public sector, and not the much larger private sector Less than 21,000 private sector workers were unionized compared to 24,788 of the state’s 215,113 public sector employees.

2. South Carolina
> Pct. of workers in unions:
2.1%
> Union workers: 40,294 (8th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: +0.7% (17th largest growth)
> Unemployment rate: 6.4% (19th highest)

After only its neighbor to the north, South Carolina had the second lowest proportion of its workforce in a union in 2014. The number of unionized workers in the state dropped by more than 28,000 from 2013 through 2014, one of the larger such drops than all but a handful of other states. Despite the one-year decline, the percentage of unionized workers in the state actually grew by about three-quarters of a percent from 2005. Unlike most of the states with the weakest union membership, South Carolina’s unemployment rate of 6.4% was slightly higher than the national rate of 6.2%.

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1. North Carolina
> Pct. of workers in unions:
1.9%
> Union workers: 76,293 (19th lowest)
> 10-yr. change in union membership: -28.7% (4th largest decline)
> Unemployment rate: 6.1% (25th highest)

At 1.9%, North Carolina had a lower percentage of unionized workers than any other state in the country. Only 76,293 of the state’s 3.6 million workers were union members in 2014. North Carolina also experienced one of the sharpest drops in union representation in the country in the last 10 years. Since 2005, union membership declined by more than 30,600 members. This drop of nearly 29% occurred even as the state’s workforce grew by more than 300,000 over the same time period. In construction, an industry that typically has strong union representation, North Carolina stood out even more. While at least 10% of construction workers in most states were unionized, Unionstats alarmingly reported that there were no unionized construction workers in the state.

Click here to see the states with the strongest unions