How a Labor Stronghold Could Soon Take a Hit

By Eric Morath and Danny DoughertyFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

The face of union labor is increasingly a woman teaching at a public school rather than a man digging in a coal mine, according to new data released by the Labor Department. Teachers and other government workers have become the backbone of organized labor at a time when factories and other private-sector businesses are less likely to be unionized.

One of these trends could soon take a turn.

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The Supreme Court is expected to rule this year on whether public-sector unions can require all represented employees to pay fees. If the court rules against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in the case -- the expected outcome now that Justice Neil Gorsuch has joined the court -- government workers would have less incentive to fund unions that negotiate on their behalf.

Overall union membership rates held steady last year at 10.7%, according to the latest Labor Department data. Public-sector union membership held steady at 34%.

Here is how union membership is trending leading up to the big court decision.

In the workforce overall, private-sector workers outnumber government employees more than 5 to 1. But the number of private-sector union members nearly matches the number in the public sector.

Private, nonunion jobs have grown the fastest in the U.S. in the past 35 years, while the median union member, whether in the public or private sector, earns more than a median worker who isn't in a union.

Traditional blue-collar workers are now less likely to be in a union. Meanwhile, unions have had little success in organizing faster-growing service-sector industries, such as health care and food service.

Union-membership rates among federal workers, who can't be compelled to pay dues or union fees, is lower than the rate for other levels of government, but higher than for the private sector. The lower federal rate offers a preview of how local and state unions might fare should the Supreme Court rule that state and local workers can't be required to pay.

The share of women in unions has increased as membership rates in fields such as manufacturing and mining fell.

Union members tend to be older than the workforce as a whole.

So-called right-to-work states, where union representation can't be a condition of employment, have much lower rates of union membership. If the Supreme Court overturns its 1977 precedent, government workers would be treated similarly to private employees in such states.

Write to Eric Morath at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 19, 2018 13:29 ET (18:29 GMT)