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Who are Union Members? New Study Shows “The Changing Face of Labor”

labor-4-2009-11Hey folks! I’m filling in for Tula’s weekly labor column this week.  Today, I wanted to talk about a new report out this week on the demographics of the labor movement.

As you might suspect, with an increase in corporate power came a decrease in the number of union members in the country.  In the last couple decades, as corporations became increasingly ruthless towards their employees’ rights – and our government increasingly blind to those wrongs – the number of union workers dropped sharply.

According to CEPR’s new report, The Changing Face of Labor, the overall decline of labor has actually led to a reversal of the traditional image of labor as “male, pale, and stale.” Indeed, just 38% of union members are white men, Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in labor, and by 2020 the majority of union members will be women.

On the flip side, as you can see from the chart at the top of this post, the labor movement’s biggest drop has been in private companies, notably manufacturing.  Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times elaborates:

According to the study, “The Changing Face of Labor, 1983-2008,” just 11 percent of union members work in manufacturing, down from nearly 30 percent in the 1980s. Indeed, for the first time since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, the percentage of factory workers who are in unions, 11.4 percent, has fallen below the percentage of all workers who are in unions — 12.4 percent last year. That is down from 35 percent in the 1950s. The membership of the U.A.W. has fallen to less than 500,000, from 1.5 million in 1979.

Public sector unions have held steady; state governments don’t bust their unions, can’t outsource or offshore their workers, and, as such, those union workers are relatively safe.  But as union companies send factories to Mexico, and foreign companies move to the US with union-level pay, sans union, we see manufacturing unions plummet.

For more findings from the report, SEIU has a good breakdown of some of the statistics:


  • Nearly 40 percent percent of all union workers have college degrees. Almost half (49.4 percent) of union women had at least a four-year college degree.
  • More educated workers were more likely to be unionized than less-educated workers, a reversal from 25 years ago.

Public Sector & Growth

  • Just under half of all union members come from the public sector, up from just over one-third in 1983.
  • Union ranks have increased slightly over the past two years, and members now represent 12.4 percent of the nation’s work force.


  • Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the labor movement.
  • About one-in-eight (12.6 percent) of union workers is an immigrant, up from one-in-twelve in 1994
  • In 1983, the majority (51.7 percent) of all union workers was white men; by 2008, white men were only 38.1 percent of the unionized workforce.
  • The typical union worker was 45 years old, or about 7 years older than in 1983. The most heavily unionized age group was in the age range of 55-64.

No matter what, the labor movement’s growth needs a shot in the arm.  Given how thoroughly corporations have manipulated the current law, the best prescription is the Employee Free Choice Act.  It’s a sure-fire way to give employees the tools they need to hold corporations accountable, and needs to be taken up as soon as Congress is done with health care.

Until then, we can expect a dwindling – though diverse – labor movement.

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Michael Whitney

Michael Whitney

My name is Michael Whitney. I'm a progressive online organizer working with FDL Action. Rush Limbaugh called me "clueless" once. He went into rehab two days later.