Snapshot of California Union Membership: ‘It’s not your grandfather’s union anymore’

Savannah Hunter

Press Coverage

It’s a “hot labor summer” in California and the state is a flashpoint for large and highly visible union activity. More than 275,000 workers across a range of industries have participated in 113 labor actions, including 55 strikes, so far this year.[1] That makes it a good moment to take a look at who California union members are, using recently updated data from the U.S. Census’ 2021-2022 Current Population Survey (CPS). Our analysis reveals union membership today is different than a generation ago. It’s not your grandfather’s union anymore.

Key findings from our “California Union Membership and Coverage, 2023 Chartbook” include:

  • At least half of California’s union members are women.
  • The majority of California’s union members are workers of color, reflecting the diversity of California’s workforce.
  • Half of all union members in California work in the public sector.
  • The share of California workers in unions has been remarkably stable in California over the last two decades, despite continuing to fall in the rest of the country.

About 2.5 million Californians are members of labor unions, or one out of six wage and salary workers in the state (16.2%), and around 2.8 million workers in California are covered by a union contract.[2] However, these numbers underestimate union membership in the state because more than half a million unionized in-home supportive services (IHSS) workers and around 33,400 unionized family child care providers, who are primarily women and workers of color, are undercounted or missing in the CPS data. These estimates also don’t include more recent union victories, like the contract ratification of 17,000 graduate student researchers on University of California campuses.

Twenty years ago, the typical union member in California was a white man; today, half of union members are women (49.8%) and more than half, about four out of seven union members, are workers of color (57.6%). There are also regional trends in the demographic make-up of union members in the state. In the San Francisco Bay Area a third of union members are Asian/Pacific Islander (32.2%) and in the Los Angeles Metro Area almost half of union members are Hispanic (47.3%). Again, these numbers underestimate the diversity of California’s union members because of the undercount of IHSS workers and family child care providers. While data on union membership of these workers is unavailable, we estimate that with the inclusion of IHSS and family child care providers more than half of workers (around 54.2%) covered by collective bargaining are women, and around three out of five workers (61.2%) covered by collective bargaining are workers of color.

While union density–that is, the share of unionized workers in a given industry or region–has fallen nationally for the last 20 years, in California it has held steady between 16-18% over the same time period. California’s union density in the public sector is particularly strong. Around four out of seven (57.7%) workers in the public sector are covered by collective bargaining agreements, compared to only around one in ten workers (10.6%) in the private sector. And one of every two union members in the state is employed in the public sector (50.7%). Additionally, union density in the health care industry increased by more than 20% over the past two decades–as the health care sector grew from 7.9% to 10.5% of the state’s workforce. These trends set California apart from the country as a whole, which saw declines in union density in the public sector and across almost all industries.

The current diversity of California’s union members and steady rate of union density is tied to the legacy of several factors sociologists and labor scholars Ruth Milkman and Daisy Rooks identified in the early 2000s.[3]

  1. The changing demographics of California’s workforce, which today is just under half female (46.3%), two-thirds non-white (64.2%), and almost one-third foreign-born (31.3%).
  1. The industrial make-up of the state, where declines in union density in manufacturing, for example, were not as great as in the Rust Belt.
  1. The particularly strong union growth in the public sector and in the health care industry, due to efforts by labor unions such as SEIU, CNA, CTA/NEA, CSEA, AFSCME, and others.
  1. The intentional efforts by organized labor in the 1990s and early 2000s to organize low-wage, particularly immigrant, workers, especially in Los Angeles. For example, Latino immigrants were key in the successful organizing of janitors and hotel workers in Southern California, and the unionization of home care workers in California was led by a workforce that is predominantly female and racially and ethnically diverse.[4]

These efforts by organized labor, especially women, workers of color, and immigrants, are reflected in the stronger union trends in the state compared to the nation. The changes are not only in the membership. One year ago Lorena Gonzalez became the first woman and first Latina to lead the California Labor Federation. Last November, Yvonne Wheeler became the first Black woman elected President of the Los Angeles Labor Federation. Kim Tavaglione is the first woman and first person of color to serve as Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council. David Huerta now serves as President of the Service Employees International Union State Council.

The data alone cannot predict union growth in the coming years, but public support for unions is at the highest point since the mid 1960s[5] and actions by workers in the state are increasing. Union leaders say the diversity of their membership is what has allowed the labor movement to grow.

“These statistics tell a story that we already know well here in Los Angeles: the workers pushing our movement forward–hospitality workers, airport workers, government workers, nurses, janitors, teachers–are women, immigrants, and people of color,” said the Yvonne Wheeler,  “The L.A. labor movement’s strength is in our diversity.”


[1] Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker. “ILR Labor Action Tracker,” 2023. Reyes-Velarde, Alejandra. “‘Staggering Solidarity’: How California’s Summer Strikes Broke down Wealth, Class Barriers.” CalMatters, August 8, 2023, sec. California Divide.

[2] Unionized workers are able to achieve gains through collective organizing and fund their activities through membership. Members voluntarily contribute a small portion of their paychecks and run their unions through a democratic process voting on union leadership and representation, bargaining priorities, and more. Union membership is opt-in, meaning that some workers may be represented by a union but may not be union members; we refer to this as workers covered by collective bargaining or covered workers.

[3] See: Milkman, Ruth, ed. Organizing Immigrants: The Challenge for Unions in Contemporary California. Illustrated edition. Ithaca, N.Y: ILR Press, 2000. AND Milkman, Ruth, and Daisy Rooks. “California Union Membership: A Turn-of-the-Century Portrait.” UC Berkeley: University of California Institute for Labor and Employment 2003 (October 2003): 3–37.

[4] Delp, Linda, and Katie Quan. “Homecare Worker Organizing in California: An Analysis of a Successful Strategy.” Labor Studies Journal 27, no. 1 (2002): 1–23.

[5] Gallup. “U.S. Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965.”, August 30, 2022.