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Center for Labor Research and Education


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Blacks in Unions: 2012

  • Part I: Introduction

    April 4 marked the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. He was killed in Memphis as he supported the effort of Black sanitation workers to form a union. His endorsement of unionization as a central strategy to improve the lives of the Black community was not a recent one. From the very beginning of his prominence as a civil rights leader, he viewed the civil rights movement as being deeply intertwined with the struggle of workers to organize for power and dignity on the job.2

    In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on unionization.3 Overall union density – the proportion of the workforce comprised of union members – declined. At the same time, the union premium – the positive differential between wages received by union members relative to non-union members – still existed. In light of the declining presence of unions, the continued benefits of unionization, and Dr. King’s strong support of unions, this Data Brief presents a picture of Blacks in unions that goes beyond the data in the BLS report. Part II examines overall Black unionization disaggregated by gender. Part III presents data on Black unionization disaggregated by gender and region. Part IV examines Black unionization with a focus on the largest 10 metropolitan areas. The Appendix presents the same analysis as the brief, but disaggregates the data by race and ethnicity.

    Key findings in this brief include:

    • A greater proportion of Black workers were union members compared to the proportion of non-Black workers who were union members. In 2012, 13.1% of all Black workers in the United States were union members; 11.0% of non-Black workers in the United States were union members.
    • Black workers were disproportionately in unions relative to their share in the overall workforce. In 2012, 13.3% of all union members in the United States were Black; Blacks comprised 11.4% of the overall workforce in the United States.
    • These differences were magnified when limiting the analysis to the ten most populous metropolitan areas in the United States. Among U. S. workers, Blacks were 19% more likely to belong to unions than non-Blacks; however, among workers in the largest metropolitan areas, Blacks were 42% more likely to belong to unions compared to non-Blacks.

    Part II: Black Unionization

    This Brief presents data on the proportion of Black workers who are union members (Black union density); the proportion of all union members that is Black (Black share of union members); and the proportion of the workforce that is Black (Black share of the workforce).4To place this data in a context, the Black union density is compared to the union density among non-Blacks and the Black share of union members will be compared to the Black share of the workforce.

    As indicated in Table 1, Black union density is a greater than the union density among non-Blacks: 13.1% of all Black workers are union members compared to 11.0% of all non-Black workers. Black union density exceeded non-Black union density when the data was disaggregated by gender.

    Table 1: Union Density - Proportion of Workforce in Unions

    In addition, union membership is disproportionately Black when compared to the entire workforce. 13.3% of all union members were Black; this is larger than the Black share of the entire workforce that was 11.4%. This disproportionality was true for Black men and Black women.

    Table 2: Black Share - Proportion of Union/Workforce that is Black

    Part III: Black Unionization by Region

    Tables 3 -7 present the same analysis at the regional level. The same pattern exists: Black union density is higher than non-Black union density and the share of union workers that are Black is larger than the share of all workers that are Black.

    Table 3: Union Density and Black Share -  By Region

    Table 4: Union Density and Black Share - By Region and Gender: Northeast

    Table 5: Union Density and Black Share - By Region and Density: Midwest

    Table 6: Union Density and Black Share - By Region and Density: South

    Table 7: Union Density and Black Share - By Region and Density: West

    Part IV: Black Unionization in the Ten Most Populous Metropolitan Areas

    Tables 8 and 9 provide data on Black unionization in the ten largest metropolitan areas.5In the largest 10 metropolitan areas, 16.3% of Black workers are in unions in contrast to 11.5% of non-Blacks workers. This pattern of greater union density among Black workers relative to non-Black union density is repeated when the data is disaggregated by gender. In addition, as seen in the analysis for the entire population, the proportion of union members that is Black exceeds the share of the entire workforce that is Black.

    Table 8: Union Density - Largest 10 Metropolitan Areas

    Table 9: Black Share - Largest 10 Metropolitan Areas

    Table 10 presents the data for the entire U.S. population and largest 10 metropolitan areas and then compares the relative union densities at the two levels of geographies. For the U.S. population, Black workers were 19% more likely to be union members than non-Blacks (13.1/11.0 = 1.19). However, when the analysis is restricted to the ten most populous metropolitan areas, Black workers are 42% more likely to be union members than non-Black union members (16.3/11/5 = 1.42). This increased probability of being a union member is true when the data is examined by gender.

    Table 10: Union Density

    Table 11 provides a measure of disproportionality: Blacks are members of unions at a rate greater than their share of the entire workforce. For the U.S. population, this disproportionality is 16% (13.3/11.4 = 1.16). However, this disproportionality increases when examining the largest metropolitan areas. For all Blacks in the largest metropolitan areas, the disproportionality is 33% (20.5/15.4 = 1.33).

    Table 11: Black Share

    Part V: Conclusion

    An analysis of 2012 Current Population Survey data reveals that Black workers have a higher union density compared to non-Black workers and Blacks workers comprise a disproportionate share of the union membership relative to their share of the overall workforce. These patterns exist when the data is disaggregated by gender and region. In addition, the pattern is more pronounced when examining data from the 10 most populous metropolitan areas in the country.

    The relatively high proportion of Black union members in large metropolitan areas might hold rising importance as the labor movement seeks new ways to improve the conditions facing workers in the United States. In recent years, while union density has been declining, public policy campaigns to raise labor standards have been successful at the state and local level. Local authorities have passed legislation to raise minimum wages, provide paid sick days, and combat wage theft. To the extent Blacks are disproportionately members of unions, a pathway to great public policy success might lie through a stronger relationship with Black communities and their elected officials.


    Table AI: Union Density - Proportion of Workforce in UnionsTable A2: Union Density - NortheastTable A3: Union Density - Top 10 Metro AreasTable A4: Group Share - Proportion of Union/ Workforce that is of that GroupTable 5: Group Share by RegionTable A5, continued: Group Share by Region (West Only)Table A6: Group Share - Top 10 Metro Areas


    1. The author wishes to thank the Economic Policy Institute for the use of their data and Sylvia Allegretto (UC Berkeley Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics) for her assistance in obtaining and analyzing the data.
    2. See King’s speeches on labor in Michael Honey, ed, “All Labor Has Dignity” (Beacon Press; 2011).
    3. U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Member — 2012 (; accessed March 23, 2013)
    4. The data is based on the author’s analysis of the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata. In contrast to the analysis presented in the BLS report where White, Black, Other, and Latino are not mutually exclusive categories, this brief creates categories that are mutually exclusive. Hence, while the terms Black, non-Black, White, Other will be used for expository clarity, the categories are actually, non-Hispanic Black, non non-Hispanic Black, non-Hispanic White, and non-Hispanic Other. In addition, the weights used in this data set vary somewhat from those used by the BLS; therefore, there are minor variations between data reported here and data reported by the BLS.
    5. The top ten most populous metropolitan areas in 2012 were: New York City; Los Angeles; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Philadelphia; Washington, DC; Miami; Atlanta; and Boston.

  • Press Coverage

    Black Transit Worker Campaigns to Increase Diversity in Union Leadership | August 24, 2016

    ‘Right-to-work’ Laws Depress Union and Non-Union Wages
    Black Voice News | May 1, 2015

    Black unemployment rate headed for single digits
    New Pittsburgh Courier | January 18, 2015

    Black Unemployment Rate Headed for Single Digits By Freddie Allen
    Dallas Weekly | January 12, 2015

    Koch brothers’ new racial gambit: What’s really behind a quiet battle with AFSCME
    Salon | July 25, 2014

    Labor long intertwined with civil rights
    USA Today | February 25, 2014

    Less White and Less Male: Labor Movement Finds New Support
    MSNBC | July 3, 2013

    Rate of Union Membership Greater for Blacks
    Black Voice News | May 14, 2013

    Black Workers 19% More Likely to Be in Unions
    AFL-CIO Now | April 24, 2013

    African Americans Make Up Largest Percentage of Union Membership
    New America Media | April 15, 2013