Union Participation and Wages

Union Participation and Wages

by Erik Knoder

March 17, 2017

In 2016, 14.6 million wage and salary workers were union members. They accounted for 10.7 percent of the workforce. Their numbers are down from 14.8 million (11.1%) in 2015. An additional 1.7 million workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, but are not union members. The union membership rate has steadily declined from a high of 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available. The data are from a recently released summary of union membership in the United States by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some highlights from the 2016 data are:

  • About 34.4 percent of government workers were union members, compared with about 6.4 percent of workers in private-sector industries.
  • Two occupational groups – education, training, and library occupations and protective service occupations – had the highest unionization rates, at 34.6 percent and 34.5 percent respectively. Protective service occupations include fire fighters and police officers.
  • Men (11.2%) were more likely to be union members than women (10.2%).
  • Full-time wage and salary workers who were union members had median weekly earnings of $1,004, compared with a median of $802 for wage and salary workers who were not represented by unions.
  • In Oregon, 228,000 wage and salary workers (13.5%) were union members and an additional 39,000 wage and salary workers were represented by unions, but were not members.
The table presents this information for selected occupations. Detailed tables with information on more occupations and industries may be found at, then searching for “union membership.” While union members have higher median weekly wages in many occupations, sales and management have lower median wages for union members.

Similar wage information for most occupations is not available for Oregon or its counties. The Oregon Employment Department publishes wages for most occupations, but does not distinguish between union members and nonunion workers.

However the Employment Department does conduct the Construction Industry Occupational Wage Survey for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). The survey shows that union wages are generally higher than nonunion wages in both regions shown in the tables. The exception is for truck drivers in the second table.

The wages are from a survey of nonresidential construction occupations that helps the labor commissioner determine the prevailing wage rate. The method used for the Construction Industry Occupational Wage survey is outlined by statute. The resulting wages are not directly comparable to typical occupational wages published by the Employment Department. However, they do provide an indication of the difference in journey-level wages for union and nonunion workers in some occupations in the nonresidential construction industries.

The percentage of workers holding union membership has declined nationally and in Oregon. Nationwide, union membership is highest in the public sector but is also relatively high in the transportation and utilities, construction, and educational services industries. Union membership in manufacturing industries has declined to 8.8 percent – less than the national average for all industries. Union membership is generally associated with a higher wage, but not for all occupations.