WASHINGTON -- Despite long-term declines in union membership, the proportion of U.S. workers who belong to a labor union held steady overall last year and even grew slightly in the private sector, according to data released Friday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The percentage of public-sector workers who are in a union remained high but dropped a touch, from 35.9 percent in 2012 to 35.3 percent in 2013, numbers that could reflect government layoffs as well as rollbacks in collective bargaining rights in places like Wisconsin. But the percentage of private-sector workers who are in a union ticked up, from 6.6 percent to 6.7, a likely sign of union employers doing more hiring.
Although one year's numbers don't reverse a decades-long trend, the gain of 281,000 private-sector union members should serve as welcome news to organized labor, particularly after a notable drop in union density the previous year.
In a statement, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, celebrated the gains made in manufacturing and construction but bemoaned the layoffs in the public sector. He praised non-union workers like fast-food employees for "pushing back" in 2013 against falling wages.
“Make no mistake, the job of rebuilding workers’ bargaining power and raising wages for the 99 percent has a long way to go,” Trumka said. “Collective action among working people remains the strongest, best force for economic justice in America."
Accounting for all jobs in both the public and private sectors, the national union membership rate was 11.3 percent last year, the same as in 2012. In a sign of how much unions have contracted over the past few decades, the overall rate was 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which BLS has comparable data.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement Friday that bargaining power in the workplace was critical to a strong middle class.
"The decline in union membership over the last few decades has contributed to more working families struggling to get by," Perez said. "When workers have a seat at the table, they are better able to bargain for their fair share of the value they helped create, and that leads to greater economic security and economic mobility for everyone."
The modest gains made by organized labor last year didn't escape the notice of the industry-backed anti-union group Center for Union Facts, which said in a press release that "an animal is most dangerous when cornered and wounded."
"While this uptick is by no means a tectonic shift in the long-term trend of waning union membership, it certainly is something employers should pay attention to going forward," said J. Justin Wilson, the group's managing director.