BLS: Union density 10.3 percent last year. AFL-CIO: Not the whole story
Bureau of Labor Statistics

WASHINGTON—Union density nationwide was 10.3% last year, an annual report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. But the AFL-CIO retorts that’s not the whole story.

That’s because the numbers belie the activism, success in community-backed strikes, the record numbers of unionists elected to public office – from governors on down to school boards and city councils – and legislative successes, too, the federation contended.

And the fed forecast another win, when the U.S. House plans to consider and vote on the Protect the Right to Organize (Pro) Act, the most-comprehensive and pro-worker labor law reform legislation in decades. The vote will occur before the congressional President’s Day recess in mid-February.

Based on a Current Population Survey sample of 60,000 households nationwide, BLS calculated the U.S. had 14.574 million union members last year, down 170,000 (0.2%) from 2018. BLS said it is 90%+ confident its numbers are as accurate as they would be if it tallied unionists in every U.S. household.

Unions also represented another 1.61 million non-members, a number virtually unchanged from 2018. They’re the “free riders” who pay agency fees in non-right to work states – and nothing at all for union services in RTW states.

The agency also calculated that one-third (33.6%) of public sector workers – teachers, fire fighters, EMTs, state government workers and so on – are unionists, compared to 6.2% in the private sector. Still, the number of private sector unionists outnumbered public sector unionists by some 400,000.

As usual, more than half of U.S. union members are in just seven states: California, with 2.504 million, up 99,000 from 2018 and 15.2% of its 2019 workforce, New York (1.732 million, down 140,000 and 21% of all 2019 workers), Illinois (771,000, down 15,000 and 13.6% of 2019 workers), Pennsylvania (676,000, down 25,000 and 12% of 2019 workers), New Jersey (642,000, up 3,000 and 15.7% of its 2019 workers), Washington (638,000, down 11,000 and 18.8% of 2019 workers) and Ohio (610,000, down 29,000 and 11.9% of last year’s workers).

Washington finished third in union density nationwide, behind New York and Hawaii (23.5%), BLS said. South Carolina, home to a virulently anti-union anti-worker GOP state regime – though the AFL-CIO did not say so – finished last (2.2%).

Besides California and New Jersey, unions added members in 13 other states, though most of those gains were small. Notable exceptions were Florida (+67,000 members, to 551,000) and Missouri (+46,000, to 297,000). The Missouri gain partially reversed recent declines in union density there. It’s now 11.1%. It was 9.4% the year before.

The AFL-CIO downplayed the numbers and focused on the activism. It cited successful teacher strikes, where administrators forced teachers to walk out for better working conditions, more help for their students and higher pay for themselves and paraprofessionals. Also included: The successful GM strike of 50,000 Auto Workers and the successful strike for better pay, health care and working conditions of 31,000 Food and Commercial Workers against Stop ‘n Shop supermarkets in New England.

“And unions used our collective political power to expand organizing rights in 2019,” the federation declared. After electing more than 900 unionists to public office in 2018 alone, and taking back legislatures around the U.S., labor won collective bargaining rights for public workers in Nevada, farm workers in New York and even for loggers in Maine. Logging is among the least-unionized industries, BLS said.

”And in California, AB5 is a landmark law to prevent the misclassification of employees as independent contractors that will protect the rights and improve the working conditions of more than one million workers,” the AFL-CIO said. That, too, was a political win: The California Labor Federation helped elect a pro-worker supermajority in the legislature, plus Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who signed the law.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.