On January 23, 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor issued its annual report on union membership. The report tracks statistics and trends for both union membership—defined as wage and salary workers who reported being members of a union—and union representation—defined as both union members and workers “who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract.” Across almost every industry and demographic, the statistics showed a decrease in both union membership and union representation as compared to 2011. 

Nationally, the union membership rate in 2012 was 11.3%, down from 11.8% in 2011. This decrease is further evidence of the long, slow downward trend in union membership in the United States. For example, in 1983—the first year such statistics were issued by the Department of Labor—the union membership rate was 20.1%.

At the state level, union membership declined in 34 states, increased in 14 states, and remained unchanged in two states. New York had the highest union membership rate (23.2%) while North Carolina had the lowest (2.9%). Illinois ranked third in terms of total number of union members (800,000) and 11th in union membership rate (14.6%). Approximately half of the country’s 14.4 million union members were located in seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio. 

Looking at the statistics by industry, the overall union membership rate for private sector workers dropped from 6.9% to 6.6%. The private sector industries with the highest unionization rates were the transportation, utilities, and construction industries. In the public sector, the overall union membership rate decreased from 37% to 35.9%. As in previous years, local government workers posted the highest union membership rate in the public sector (41.7%). 

Although these statistics show a downward trend in union membership at both the local and national level, employers should not interpret them as evidence of a decrease in union activity. To the contrary, in response to declining membership numbers, unions are working even harder to find creative ways to recruit new members, organize new workforces, and maintain their representation of existing bargaining units. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board has issued a continuing stream of pro-labor decisions, making it easier for unions to organize workers and expand their memberships. In addition, the NLRB has made targeted efforts to reach out to non-union employees to inform them of their rights. Accordingly, while union membership may be declining as a whole, employers will continue to face consistent (and in some cases, increasing) levels of union activity across multiple industries and geographic areas.