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Americans in Labor Unions

Who wears the union label?

by Joseph Carroll

Last month, the AFL-CIO split, with more than 4 million members of the Teamsters union, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union disaffiliating themselves from the labor federation.

About 1 in 10 Americans currently say they belong to a labor union. A review of historical Gallup Poll data shows that represents a decrease from the 1940s and 1950s, when roughly one in six belonged to a union. Current polling shows that union membership is higher among government workers than among private-sector or nonprofit employees, among middle-aged Americans than among younger adults or senior citizens, among men than among women, and in middle-income households than among higher-income or lower-income households. Union membership is lower in the South than in other regions across the country.

Membership Trends

Since the 1940s, Gallup has asked Americans whether they belong to a labor union. An analysis of the results to this question at selected points in time since the mid-1940s shows that reported membership in unions has held steady for the past 20 years, but it is slightly lower now than it was from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s. The following analysis is based on yearly averages of self-reported union membership on a decade-by-decade basis over the past 60 years.

It is important to note that Gallup's reported estimates of union membership are slightly lower than the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, mostly attributable to the fact that Gallup has historically asked this question of all Americans and the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures wage and salary workers.

The trend in union membership shows a slight, gradual decline over the past 60 years. In 1945, an average of 14% of Americans surveyed that year said they belonged to a labor union. Union membership was essentially the same in 1955, with an average of 15% of Americans reporting membership that year.

But then, self-reported membership began to decline gradually. In 1965 and 1975, 13% of Americans said they belonged to a union. In 1985, the average fell to 10%. These results have shown no change in Gallup Polls conducted in 1997 and 2005. (Gallup did not include its labor union question polls conducted in 1995 and 1996, so the results from 1997 were used in this analysis.)

Who's a Member?

To examine union members more closely, Gallup aggregated the results of its past five August surveys* that asked this question. The results show some interesting differences among segments of the population.

Among all adults who say they are employed full time or part time, 12% report that they belong to a labor union. Government employees are substantially more likely to be union members than are employees of private companies or nonprofit organizations. Roughly a third of government employees (31%) belong to a labor union. This compares with 12% of employees of nonprofit organizations and 8% of employees working for private businesses.

Americans who live in the South are less likely than those living elsewhere in the country to belong to a labor union. Only 4% of Southerners say they are members, while 10% of Westerners, 11% of Easterners, and 11% of Midwesterners report membership.

About one in eight adults between the ages of 30 and 64 say they are union members. This is significantly higher than it is among 18- to 29-year-olds, of whom only 4% report membership, and among those aged 65 and older, 5% of whom are members.

Americans in middle-income households are slightly more likely than those in higher-income households and lower-income households to belong to a union. Only 5% of those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year belong to a labor union. This compares with 12% among those living households earning between $30,000 and $75,000 per year and 9% among those earning $75,000 or more per year.

Men are twice as likely as women to report being in a union, by a 12% to 6% margin. The results among employed men and women show little difference, with 13% of men and 10% of women saying they belong to a union.

Republicans, at 6%, are slightly less likely than Democrats (10%) or independents (10%) to say they belong to labor unions.

The data also show some slight variations by education level. Thirteen percent of those with postgraduate educations belong to a labor union, most likely teachers or college professors. This compares with 7% of college graduates, 10% of those with some college education, and 7% of those with a high school diploma or less.

*Results are based on in-person telephone interviews with at least 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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