Union membership up, even during recession

Even in a recession, union membership is increasing across the country, according to new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It could be because workers think unions will help protect their jobs in this rough economy, or because unions are doing a better job of getting people to join, but whatever the reason, the numbers are up, if only slightly.

Union members accounted for 12.4% of employed wage and salary workers in 2008, up from 12.1% a year earlier. The number of union workers rose by 428,000 to 16.1 million. That's down a lot from the 20.1% union membership in 1983, when union data was first compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and when 17.7 million workers were unionized.

Government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than were private sector workers -- 36% for public sector vs. 7.6% for private. The highest unionization rate of 38.7% were at jobs in education, training and libraries.

Most states -- 29 and the District of Columbia -- had union membership rates below the U.S. average of 12.4%, while 20 states had higher rates and one state had the same rate.

The states with the highest union membership were New York at 24.9%, Hawaii at 24.3% and Alaska at 23.5%. The lowest rates were North Carolina's 3.5%, followed by Georgia at 3.7%, South Carolina at 3.9%, Virginia at 4.1%, Texas at 4.5% and Louisiana at 4.6%.

Women have been gaining ground on men in joining unions, with 13.4% membership for men and 11.4% for women in 2008 -- a much smaller gap than in 1983 when the rate for men was about 10 percentage points higher than for women.

Black workers were more likely to be union members at 14.5% than were white workers at 12.2%, Asian at 10.6%, or Hispanic at 10.6%.

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job search at www.AaronCrowe.net

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