Commentary | Unions and Labor Standards

Union membership grows despite difficult economy

New data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics today suggest that unions are making a comeback under very difficult circumstances.

Union membership rose from 12.1 percent to 12.4 percent last year, continuing a second year of growth. The number of all workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, including those who choose not to be union members, also grew in 2008, from 13.3% to 13.7%, bringing an additional 518,000 workers under union contracts in 2008. Economists generally consider the number of ‘covered’ workers to be more significant.

This growth is remarkable given the overall decline in employment in 2008 (a loss of 900,000 jobs in the nonunion sector). This is also the first time in the 30 years of this data series that union density rose two years in a row.

The overall increase reflects higher rates of union density in particular sectors and was NOT driven by higher growth in sectors with a strong union presence already.

Union density increased in nine of thirteen major industry sectors, led by construction, public administration and education/health. In manufacturing, employment in the union sector rose by 17,000 jobs while the nonunion sector lost over 217,000 jobs. This hardly fits the picture painted by union critics who claim that unions are destroying jobs.

More details are available in the BLS release.