The most unionized states
Unions spent the first half of the 20th century transforming a massive industrial peasantry into the American middle class. In the second half of the 20th century, big business fought back by pressing for so-called “right-to-work” laws, which dilute the influence of labor unions and their power of collective bargaining.
The right-to-work campaign has been an unmitigated success. Union membership plummets wherever these laws exist, which weakens the primary check on corporate excess. The results are clear. According to the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History, the dramatic decline in union membership that began in the early 1960s directly coincided with a meteoric rise in the share of income going to the top 10%.
Today, 28 states enforce right-to-work laws. These free-rider statutes extend the gains of union-won collective bargaining agreements to non-union workers who didn’t join or pay dues themselves. Predictably and as intended, many workers simply opt to piggy-back instead of pitching in, which causes union membership and the influence of organized labor to dwindle. Big business prefers divided labor over organized labor for a reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly wage for union members in the United States is $1,095 vs. $892 for nonunion workers.
Today, union membership stands at about 10.3% of the U.S. workforce. That’s a little more than half of the 20.1% that existed when BLS began tracking it in 1983. Three decades prior in 1953, more than one in three private-sector workers were union members. Today, that number has dwindled to just 6.2%.
Right-to-work laws are passed or not passed in the states, so the country’s remaining union members are not spread out evenly. To determine which states are the most unionized, Stacker looked at BLS data for 2019 (released in January 2020) and ranked each state according to its percentage of wage and salary earners who were members of labor unions.
Not surprisingly, the issue is politically polarized. Republicans overwhelmingly back right-to-work laws and Democrats overwhelmingly side with their historic allies in labor. In fact, a red/blue map of the right-to-work states versus pro-union states looks nearly identical to that of the Electoral College.
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#51. South Carolina
- Employed population: 2.1 million
- Members of unions: 47,000 (2.2% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 59,000 (2.7% of employed population)
No stranger to the bottom of the list, South Carolina once again takes the title of America’s least unionized state. The state’s workforce is growing quickly and union membership is not. Its 47,000 current union members represent a decline of 14.5% over last year alone.
#50. North Carolina
- Employed population: 4.4 million
- Members of unions: 102,000 (2.3% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 150,000 (3.4% of employed population)
In the years when South Carolina isn’t the least-unionized state, its neighbor to the north often is. North Carolina became a right-to-work state in 1947, making it one of the early adopters of the movement. The right-to-work agenda emerged in the South after World War II as integrated labor unions began threatening both the economic power structure and the racial power structure in the region.
- Employed population: 12.3 million
- Members of unions: 497,000 (4% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 642,000 (5.2% of employed population)
The term “right to work” was coined by anti-labor oil industry chiefs in Houston in 1936 and no state has been more central to the movement ever since. After World War II, Houston businessman and vocal white supremacist Vance Muse founded the Christian American Association. Through the organization, he leveraged contemporary fears to successfully associate unions with both integration and communism in the public imagination, while crafting the first right-to-work laws in Texas.
- Employed population: 3.9 million
- Members of unions: 156,000 (4% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 201,000 (5.2% of employed population)
With the 2020 election in the books, Texas remains the Democratic Party’s elusive white whale—but Virginia provided a roadmap for carving solid blue states out of the GOP’s Southern stronghold. Although Democrats successfully flipped the state, Virginia is still part of the South, where the modern anti-labor movement was born and remains the most influential. Despite the change in leadership, Virginia’s right-to-work laws have so far proven too deeply entrenched for progressives in the state to uproot.
- Employed population: 4.4 million
- Members of unions: 180,000 (4.1% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 223,000 (5% of employed population)
Four years ago in 2016, labor leaders in Georgia cheered as a judge overruled a state law designed to dilute the influence of unions there even further. Despite that narrow victory, Georgia remains committed to protecting its well-earned image as a pro-business state, a status often won at the expense of labor and workers.
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- Employed population: 1.4 million
- Members of unions: 62,000 (4.4% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 83,000 (5.9% of employed population)
In 1955, Utah became the 18th state to join the right-to-work coalition and one of the first states to do so outside of the South. This dynamic, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia, is directly connected to the Mormon church’s long and complicated history of conflict with organized labor.
- Employed population: 2.9 million
- Members of unions: 135,000 (4.6% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 162,000 (5.5% of employed population)
Tennessee is part of America’s right-to-work stronghold in the South, where union membership continues to dwindle to less than 5% of the workforce. Recently, the state’s leadership proposed enshrining right-to-work language in its constitution.
- Employed population: 764,000
- Members of unions: 37,000 (4.9% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 46,000 (6% of employed population)
Idaho’s union culture can be traced to the epic struggles that took place between laborers and corporate bosses in the booming timber industry in the first half of the 20th century. Today, Idaho is one of the 10 least unionized states in the country and part of a confederation of right-to-work states that—with almost no exceptions—has overtaken the conservative Mountain West.
- Employed population: 1.2 million
- Members of unions: 62,000 (5.2% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 71,000 (5.9% of employed population)
In 2018, a local CBS affiliate reported that union membership was on the rise in Arkansas despite the state coming in behind only 12 other states in terms of current unionization. In 2020—two years after the supposed boost—Arkansas dropped even further. Now it’s behind all but eight other states.
- Employed population: 1.8 million
- Members of unions: 94,000 (5.3% of employed population)
- Workers represented by unions: 108,000 (6.1% of employed population)
In 1954, a report by a man named William J. Dodd called that year’s adoption of right-to-work laws in Louisiana “without question the most controversial legislative problem considered during the 1954 legislative session.” Although the right-to-work law’s authors insisted their motives were based in liberating Louisiana workers, Dodd pointed out that the law restricted the use of some of organized labor’s most important tools, like picketing.
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