Labor unions in the United States

Labor unions in the United States are organizations that represent workers in many industries recognized under US labor law since the 1935 enactment of the National Labor Relations Act. Their activity today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership, and on representing their members in disputes with management over violations of contract provisions. Larger trade unions also typically engage in lobbying activities and electioneering at the state and federal level.

Labor unions in the United States
Hotel union workers strike with the slogan "One job should be enough"
National organization(s)AFL-CIO, CtW, IWW
Regulatory authorityUnited States Department of Labor
National Labor Relations Board
Primary legislationNational Labor Relations Act
Taft-Hartley Act
Total union membership14.6 million[1][2][3]
Percentage of workforce;  ▪ Total: 10.3%

  ▪ Public sector: 33.6%
  ▪ Private sector: 6.2%

  ▪ Age 16–24: 4.4%
  ▪ 25–34: 8.8%
  ▪ 35–44: 11.8%
  ▪ 45–54: 12.6%
  ▪ 55–64: 12.7%
  ▪ 65 and over: 9.7%

  ▪ Women: 9.7%
  ▪ Men:

Standard Occupational Classification  ▪ Management, professional:

  ▪ Service: 9.2%
  ▪ Sales and office: 6.5%
  ▪ Natural resources, construction, and
  maintenance: 15.3%
  ▪ Production, transportation, and
  material moving:

International Labour Organization
United States is a member of the ILO
Convention ratification
Freedom of AssociationNot ratified
Right to OrganiseNot ratified

Most unions in the United States are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO created in 1955, and the Change to Win Federation which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.

The percentage of workers belonging to a union (or total labor union "density") varies by country. In 2019 it was 10.3% in the United States, compared to 20.1% in 1983.[1][2][4] There were 14.6 million members in the U.S., down from 17.7 million in 1983.[1][2] Union membership in the private sector has fallen to 6.2%, one fifth that of public sector workers, at 33.6%.[1][2] Over half of all union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington), though these states accounted for only about one-third of the workforce.[1][2] From a global perspective, in 2016 the US had the fifth lowest trade union density of the 36 OECD member nations.[4][5]

In the 21st century, the most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as city employees, government workers, teachers and police. Members of unions are disproportionately older, male, and residents of the Northeast, the Midwest, and California.[6] Union workers average 10-30% higher pay than non-union in the United States after controlling for individual, job, and labor market characteristics.[7]

Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950s, American unions remain a political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, environmental protections, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns.[8] Of special concern are efforts by cities and states to reduce the pension obligations owed to unionized workers who retire in the future.[9] Republicans elected with Tea Party support in 2010, most notably former Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have launched major efforts against public sector unions due in part to state government pension obligations along with the allegation that the unions are too powerful.[10][11] The academic literature shows substantial evidence that labor unions reduce economic inequality.[12][13] Research suggests that rising income inequality in the United States is partially attributable to the decline of the labor movement and union membership.[14][15][16]:1 [17]

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