(October 2000) After decades of continuous decline in membership, the U.S. labor movement is finally showing signs that it is coming out of its slump.

The year 1999 marks the first time since the 1970s that the percentage of eligible workers who are members of unions did not decrease from the previous year. Union membership increased in 1999 by 266,000, while the share of workers who belong to unions remained the same at 14 percent of the labor force (see figure).

Union Membership Rate Among Nonagricultural Workers, 1930 to 1999

Sources: 1930-1976: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics–Bulletin 2070, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1980): 412; 1977-1984: Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, Union Membership and Earnings Data Book (Washington, DC: Bureau of National Affairs, 1998): 11; 1985-1999: Employment and Earnings, January issues.

Still, there are huge variations in membership by state. The Carolinas have the lowest rates of unionization (3 percent for North Carolina, 4 percent for South Carolina), and New York has the highest at 25 percent.

Union membership also varies greatly by economic sector. Of the 19 million government employees, 37 percent were unionized in 1999. (Among the 10.4 million local government employees, 43 percent were union members.)

In contrast, only 9 percent of the 100 million private-sector employees belonged to unions. Overall unionization rates tend to mask the steep decline in private sector unionization, which hit a high of 42 percent in 1945.

Within the private sector, unionization varies by line of work. One in four workers in the transportation and public utilities sector belongs to a union, while only one in 50 in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector is a union member.

Finally, men are more unionized than women (16 percent vs. 11 percent), African Americans more unionized than whites (17 percent vs. 14 percent), and Hispanics slightly less unionized than either blacks or whites (12 percent). These differences primarily reflect differences in occupations and industries. Part-time workers are decidedly less likely to be union members than are full-time workers (7 percent vs. 15 percent).

Recruitment Efforts

Government employment and unionization rates have been relatively constant over the past 20 years, so the key to union growth is new organizing in the rapidly growing and changing private sector. And this sector has not been easy to penetrate.

Unions are focusing in particular on low-wage workers in the service sector. Janitorial and health care workers, for example, have been organized in large numbers. While manufacturing employment over the last several decades has remained relatively constant at around 20 million, service employment — including transportation, communications, other public utilities, and financial services — with only 6 percent unionization, has increased 2.5 times to approximately 48 million. Because the service sector is also disproportionately female, minority, and immigrant, unions trying to organize these workers have diversified their top leadership and increased the number of organizers who are female, members of a minority group, and bilingual.

Enormous service-sector employers with large profits — typified by Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s — have adopted a comprehensive approach to thwart union organization. Wal-Mart, for instance, was vehemently opposed to the leafleting of one of its stores by the United Food and Commercial Workers. To get them legally removed from the front of the store, Wal-Mart management instituted a ban on all soliciting at all the chain’s U.S. stores, which included banning the Salvation Army during the holiday season. In addition, McDonald’s has a history in Canada of pushing its anti-unionism to the point of closing its restaurants when its low-wage workers opt for a union.


The current wave of economic prosperity in the United States — the longest continuous expansion of monthly gross domestic product in the nation’s history (1991 to present) — has emboldened workers and their unions.

A number of successful strikes have helped create greater optimism among unionists. Among these was the 1997 strike by 180,000 United Parcel Service workers, which lasted several weeks and won most of the union demands. In 1998, 9,200 General Motors workers in Flint, Mich., forced the company to make major concessions by shutting down all of GM’s North American operations, in a protest over workloads and staff levels. And in the fall of 1999, 11,500 members of the Detroit Teachers Federation overrode their elected leaders and engaged in a 10-day strike that forced the city to grant key demands. This year Verizon workers struck and gained greater facility to organize the growing number of workers in wireless communications.

Unions also have won two high-profile campaigns in previously resistant areas. In 1999, the United Auto Workers organized Mexican Industries, a Detroit auto parts manufacturer that had successfully resisted unionization of its more than 4,000 workers. And in Kannapolis, N.C. — a company town that had blocked unions for decades — the Union of Needle Trade, Industrial, and Textile Employees organized 5,200 workers at Fieldcrest Cannon, the largest domestic textile manufacturer.

In a period of prosperity and low unemployment, however, unions might be expected to make bigger gains in both new organizing and wages than they have so far. Many unions are still reluctant to increase organizing, because it means shifting resources away from serving current members and reaching out to different demographic groups. The uncertainty associated with these changes threatens entrenched bureaucratic leaderships averse to taking risks.

As a result, the jury is still out on the prospects for U.S. unions. A key question or unions is whether they can improve their organizing to make breakthroughs in both traditional areas and the rapidly expanding, new service sectors.

Michael Goldfield is a professor in the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University.