Most unionized industries in America
Unions in America originated in the late 18th century and gained significant momentum in the following century with the railroads strikes of 1877. Prompted by low wages, poor working conditions, and a lack of basic safety regulations, these uprisings ultimately led to the founding of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), one of the most influential labor organizations in U.S. history. In the 20th century, the AFL made massive gains in membership, merging with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) after World War II and peaking in power in the early 1970s. It was around that time, however, that private-sector union membership began to decline.
Today the trend continues, with the largest percentage of labor unions representing public-sector workers. In fact, more than one third (33.9%) of all public-sector employees carry union cards vs. just 6.4% of private-sector employees. That represents a sharp decrease from 1973 when 24% of the private sector was union affiliated. As a whole, labor unions have been losing numbers over the last 50 years: Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been keeping track of total union participation only since 1983, current membership numbers are about half of what they were then.
To give you an idea of the current landscape for organized labor, Stacker has put together a slideshow featuring the most unionized industries in America, broken down from the least to most represented. The list, which includes both private- and public-sector employees, is based on 2018 BLS data that tracks union affiliation by occupation. The slides are ranked by the percentage of union employees in each industry, with ties broken by the union representation percentage. Take a look to see where your industry stands.
You may also like: Most and least unionized states
#24. Food services and drinking places
- Total employed by industry: 8.8 million
- Members of unions: 1.3%
- Represented by unions: 1.7%
Ranked at the bottom of the list are employees who work for establishments within the foodservice industry, which also includes “drinking places” (aka bars and pubs). Historically, fast-food employees have had a particularly difficult time unionizing, although efforts in recent years—many of which began after the 2008 financial crisis—have begun to bear fruit. In 2018, for example, three Burgerville locations unionized, and nationwide there are now four states plus the District of Columbia with $15 minimum wage legislation in the works. Similar efforts are underway among employees at restaurants and bars.
#23. Finance and insurance
- Total employed by industry: 6.8 million
- Members of unions: 1.5%
- Represented by unions: 2%
The finance and insurance sector is another industry where union involvement is minimal to nonexistent, with union members comprising just 1.5% of total employees. In 2018 a columnist for The Nation argued that unionizing the financial sector would help bring stability to the banking industry and complement other top-down approaches to financial regulation. However, there are no major union movements currently under way in either of these sectors.
#22. Professional and technical services
- Total employed by industry: 9.7 million
- Members of unions: 1.5%
- Represented by unions: 2.1%
Equally abysmal as far as unionization is concerned are industries employing workers who provide professional and technical services. Among software engineers, who make up a sizeable portion of this sector, some have hypothesized that the reason they don't organize is that they're already fairly well-paid and in high demand. Other professional and technical employees who are underrepresented include lawyers, architects, advertising associates, biotech workers, and management consultants.
#21. Agriculture and related industries
- Total employed by industry: 1.3 million
- Members of unions: 2.2%
- Represented by unions: 2.6%
Underrepresentation of agricultural workers can be linked to U.S. labor legislation that has historically excluded this sector from collective bargaining rights. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, for example, which protects employees from being fired for union involvement, excluded farmworkers, as did the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which guaranteed minimum wage and other protections. Currently a fight is being waged in New York to overturn some of these exclusions.
#20. Publishing, except internet
- Total employed by industry: 0.4 million
- Members of unions: 3.9%
- Represented by unions: 4.2%
After the bottom four sectors, all of which have membership rates in the 1–2% range, union participation jumps marginally to 3.9% in publishing. The industry, excluding internet publishing, has historically had low labor-union involvement. Some argue that unionizing would not only improve issues plaguing the industry (“low salaries, fierce competition for jobs, few opportunities for advancement or mentorship, and difficult workplace environments”), but would also increase diversity—another industry-wide problem.
#19. Real estate and rental and leasing
- Total employed by industry: 2.4 million
- Members of unions: 3.9%
- Represented by unions: 4.8%
More or less tied with publishing is the real estate sector, which lands at 19th place with equally low membership numbers but slightly more representation. Not only are the collective bargaining figures low to begin with for real estate and the rental-leasing sector—they are dropping. Between 2017 and 2018, this sector was one of a handful, along with utilities and construction, that witnessed union participation rates decrease.
#18. Wholesale trade
- Total employed by industry: 3.4 million
- Members of unions: 4.1%
- Represented by unions: 4.7%
Another low-participation industry in terms of union involvement is wholesale trade. The landscape is not completely bleak—the industry does have the large Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which has fought a number of battles for its members. Still, of the 3.4 million workers who are employed in the sector, only 4.1% are members of RWDSU or any other union.
#17. Retail trade
- Total employed by industry: 15.4 million
- Members of unions: 4.3%
- Represented by unions: 5%
Just ahead of wholesale trade is its industry counterpart, retail trade. These workers are largely represented by the same union (RWDSU), which recently went to bat for its members when it helped publicize a report about Amazon's alleged anti-union practices. Walmart workers have begun organizing in recent years with OUR Walmart, which isn't technically a union, but has many of the same objectives.
#16. Management, administrative, and waste services
- Total employed by industry: 5.5 million
- Members of unions: 4.4%
- Represented by unions: 5%
Management, administrative, and waste services is another sector that sees low labor movement participation figures. In 2018 only 4.4% of its 5.5 million workers were union members and just 5% were represented. On top of this, the industry has experienced increasing unemployment numbers, going from 430,000 unemployed workers last year to 508,000 in 2019.
#15. Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction
- Total employed by industry: 0.7 million
- Members of unions: 4.7%
- Represented by unions: 5.3%
Although coal miners' unions were some of the first and most influential in American history, today only 4.7% of all employees in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction sector are union members. In fact, the last union mine in Kentucky—the site of numerous coal miner battles in the 1930s—was closed in 2015. “For the first time in about a century, in the state that was home to the gun battles of ‘Bloody Harlan,' not a single working miner belongs to a union,” wrote Dylan Lovan in an article published by the Washington Post.2018 All rights reserved.