California

See how far union membership has declined in California

Union fee case about ‘freeloading,’ Sacramento mayor says

Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, a former union attorney, rallied SEIU 1000 members at an event timed to the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court case.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, a former union attorney, rallied SEIU 1000 members at an event timed to the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court case.

Fewer than 15 percent of California workers were members of a union in 2018, the lowest union membership rate in at least 35 years, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About 14.7 percent of the state’s workers belong to a union in 2018, down from 15.5 percent in 2017. The number of California union members fell by about 85,000 from 2017 to 2018, even as the state added more than 300,000 new workers.

California union membership has dropped by almost 4 percentage points in the past decade, and by about 7 percentage points since 1983.

Union membership also declined nationwide last year, dropping from 10.7 percent to 10.5 percent.

In 1983, more than 20 percent of American workers belonged to a union. The decline in membership has corresponded with manufacturing companies moving production overseas, and with an employment shift to service industries, which are less likely to employ union members.

Union membership remains strongest among government workers — public workers are about five times more likely to be union members than private-sector workers.

Public union membership was threatened by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which prohibited unions from collecting fees from government workers who don’t want to be in the union, even if they receive union benefits. But the nationwide Bureau of Labor Statistics data only showed a modest decline in union membership among public workers in 2018.

Largely due to the strong presence of public sector unions, California remains among the 10 states with the highest proportion of workers who are members of unions.

Phillip Reese is a data specialist at The Sacramento Bee and an assistant professor of journalism at Sacramento State. His journalism has won the George Polk and Worth Bingham awards, and he was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

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