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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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
5/ US Department of Labor // Wikimedia Commons
- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- Total employed by industry: 2.4 million
- Members of unions: 5.7%
- Represented by unions: 6.6%
About 6.6% of the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector is represented by unions, landing the industry at #14 on the list. The wide-ranging sector includes actors, musicians, fitness trainers, and amusement park attendants, among others. Actors make up a reasonable portion of that pie being represented by SAG-AFTRA, the labor union that resulted from the 2012 merger of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).
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- Total employed by industry: 18.2 million
- Members of unions: 6.7%
- Represented by unions: 7.7%
Nurses, doctors, and other health care employees constitute about 7.7% of union representation and 6.7% of its members. Although employees may not go one strike at hospitals or other health care institutions without giving the facility 10 days' notice, some people argue that unionization has the potential to harm patients, even putting lives at risk. Others contend that unions allow physicians and other health care employees to have greater control over policies and procedures, decreasing burnout and thus improving the quality of patient care.
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- Total employed by industry: 0.5 million
- Members of unions: 7.7%
- Represented by unions: 8.6%
Radio and television broadcasters make up another group of employees with very little union representation. Like actors, some are represented by SAG-AFTRA, but membership is expensive and only a small percentage of stations participate. Lack of widespread membership may have an impact on the way broadcast journalists do their jobs, according to some theories. For example, after the Sinclair Broadcast Group sparked controversy last year when it asked nearly 200 news anchors to read a right-leaning news script, some argued that union representation would allow the journalists to refuse to participate without fearing for their jobs.
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- Total employed by industry: 1.4 million
- Members of unions: 8.3%
- Represented by unions: 9.3%
Although the hospitality industry is often a low-wage sector for many of employees, it hasn't historically had a lot of union representation. In 2004, however, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) to form UNITE HERE, a union that has since achieved numerous victories. Most recently, the organization led a 7,700-member strike against the Marriott hotel chain which led to $4-an-hour raises (over five years) for the company's housekeepers, among other benefits.
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- Total employed by industry: 14.9 million
- Members of unions: 9%
- Represented by unions: 9.7%
Between 1945 and 1970, labor unions helped employees in the manufacturing sector more than triple their weekly earnings, according to History.com. In 1964 the nation's highest concentration of union workers was in the Midwest. Since then, however, these jobs have decreased and the remaining manufacturing workers are largely unrepresented. A 2016 report by the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that one-third of all production workers received food stamps or another form of government assistance—a fact some have attributed to the decline in unions.
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- Total employed by industry: 0.4 million
- Members of unions: 12.5%
- Represented by unions: 12.6%
Like radio and broadcast TV, the motion pictures and sound recording industry is an entertainment sector with minimal union participation. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents editors, cinematographers, and other film industry employees, has come under scrutiny recently amid allegations of professional misconduct, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as well as embezzlement charges.
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- Total employed by industry: 8.2 million
- Members of unions: 12.8%
- Represented by unions: 13.8%
Coming in at #8 is the construction industry, with 13.8% of hardhats represented by a union. Although the sector once had strong participation, its numbers have been shrinking for the past two decades, decreasing by 4% between 2002 and 2015. David MacPherson, a professor of economics at Trinity University, says wage concessions may have to start playing a bigger role in collective bargaining negotiations if construction unions are to survive.
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- Total employed by industry: 4.8 million
- Members of unions: 13.1%
- Represented by unions: 15.5%
With 15.5% union representation, the educational services industry, which includes both private- and public-sector employees, the percentage of workers isn't all that large, but it is still a significant number given the size of the industry. That said, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that public-sector unions can't require fees without consent from employees—a move that some have argued will strike an insurmountable blow to teachers' unions.
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- Total employed by industry: 0.9 million
- Members of unions: 15.4%
- Represented by unions: 16.2%
The Communications Workers of America dates back to 1918 when telephone operators first began organizing, although it was 20 more years before the union became the entity it is today. Since then, the CWA has negotiated dozens of contracts and led multiple strikes including against telecommunication giants such as Southern Bell Telephone Co., US West, AT&T, and Verizon. In January, news broke that Verizon had been “encouraging anti-union rhetoric” among employees and engaging in other union-busting efforts.
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- Total employed by industry: 5.4 million
- Members of unions: 16.7%
- Represented by unions: 17.9%
About 17.9% of employees in the transportation and warehousing sector are currently represented by unions. Many belong to either the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) or the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) which work with railroads, airlines, buses, and other segments of mass transit. In February, the president of JetBlue airlines sent an email warning employees about the consequences of joining a union amid an effort to sign up roughly 6,400 airport operation agents and 1,000 JetBlue mechanics.
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- Total employed by industry: 1.1 million
- Members of unions: 20.1%
- Represented by unions: 20.5%
In the utilities sector, about 1 in 5 employees has union representation, giving this industry the highest level of private-sector union participation. The main union is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which advocates for workers in the electric, gas, water, and nuclear fields, among others; was established in the late 19th century; and has been publishing its official journal, The Electrical Worker, since 1893.
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- Total employed by industry: 3.7 million
- Members of unions: 26.4%
- Represented by unions: 30.4%
The top three positions on this list are all occupied by different sectors of public employees. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 700,000 government workers, is the largest federal employee union in the nation. Its contracts include workers in the departments of Defense, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Social Security Administration and the Coast Guard.
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- Total employed by industry: 7.1 million
- Members of unions: 28.6%
- Represented by unions: 31.8%
State government comes in second place, just ahead of the federal government with 31.8% of its employees represented by unions. The main organization working on behalf of this population is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The union represents 1.3 million government workers, including firefighters, police officers, public transportation officials, sanitation workers, and others.
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- Total employed by industry: 10.3 million
- Members of unions: 40.3%
- Represented by unions: 43.4%
At the top of the list is local government, a sector that's heavily unionized, with 43.4% of all of its employees represented. Many are members of AFSCME, which represents both state and local government workers. This group makes up the largest segment of the public-sector union workforce at 56% (while 29.8% work for state governments and 14.2% for the federal government), according to the Economic Policy Institute based on U.S. Census data.