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Union membership in the U.S. slid to record low in 2019

Organized labor continued to decline in the U.S. last year, with just over 1 in 10 workers represented by a union — the lowest in the modern era.

According to figures released Wednesday by the U.S. Labor Department, 14.6 million, or 10.3%, of wage and salary workers belonged to a union in 2019. That's down by two-tenths of a percentage point from 2018. Another 1.8 million workers were not affiliated with a union but were still covered by a union contract last year, according to the agency's Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The latest tally shows union membership to be about half what it was in 1983, the first year in which comparable data was available. Back then, 17.7 million Americans belonged to a union, or one-fifth of the U.S. workforce.

"The share of workers covered by a union contract is well less than half of what it was 40 years ago — caused in large part by fierce corporate opposition spending millions of dollars on anti-union campaigns and lobbying the government to weaken labor laws,"  Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, said in a statement. 

Employers spend about $340 million a year on consultants that help keep workers from unionizing, according to a recent study from EPI that also charged management with breaking the law in 41% of union elections.  

Strikes in the U.S. as unions demand more than pay raises

The ongoing decline of unions comes in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that barred public-sector unions from charging fees to workers who did not join the union, and despite a resurgence in the labor movement by groups including Fight for $15. Other factors include lost jobs in manufacturing, a hard-hit sector that historically had strong union membership.

Last year's drop is almost entirely due to fewer union members in the private sector, according to the BLS figures. Roughly 34% of government and other public-sector workers belonged to unions last year, compared with 6.2% of those in the private sector. Union membership was highest in local government, which employs heavily unionized occupations like police officers, firefighters and teachers. It was lowest in finance, insurance, technical service and food service, the government found.

Full-time workers who belonged to a union earned $1,095 a week on average in 2019, compared to $892 for non-union members. 

The yearly figures could serve to illuminate the political divide in the U.S., with more than half of those 14.6 million union members living in only seven states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington. The lowest unionization rates were found in North Carolina,  South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

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