Public Release: 

L.A. and California labor lead the nation, Says UCLA Labor Day study

University of California - Los Angeles

California's unionization rate rose sharply in 2007, while rates for the nation and Los Angeles changed little, according to a report by UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

"The State of the Unions in 2007: A Profile of Union Membership in Los Angeles, California and the Nation" shows that California's unionization rate rose from 15.7 in 2006 to 16.5 percent in the first half of 2007, while national and Los Angeles unionization rates posted only slight increases, rising from 12 to 12.2 percent and 15.2 to 15.3 percent, respectively.

"The U.S. labor movement overall has lost considerable ground over the past 12 years," said report author Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology and director of the UCLA labor institute. "However, the increase in California union membership rates is an impressive one. If we take a longer view, union membership in the state and in Los Angeles has held steady over the past 12 years and even increased in some periods, while nationally there has been a steady decline. This is one of the few regions of the country where unions are maintaining a strong presence, despite the many forces arrayed against them."

Women, immigrants and young people were more likely to be unionized in Los Angeles and in California than in the U.S. as a whole, the report notes.

Milkman and UCLA sociology graduate student Bongoh Kye studied U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey data on union membership for California, Los Angeles and the nation. Their report analyzes unionization rates by race, nationality, gender, age and education and offers a detailed analysis of unionism in the first six months of 2007. This report and a 2006 report are available at

While U.S. unionization rates saw a dramatic decline from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 12.2 percent in 2007, California's unionization rate was at 16.5 percent in both 1996 and 2007, although fluctuations occurred throughout that period. In Los Angeles the trend was similar, with a 1996 unionization rate of 15.4 percent and a 2007 rate of 15.3 percent.

Unionization rates are an important indicator of how well workers are faring, because unionized workers typically enjoy higher earnings and superior benefits than their nonunion counterparts. In 2007, for instance, unionized workers in Los Angeles averaged $26.82 an hour, compared with $21.58 an hour for nonunion workers.

"Because public-sector unionization is so strong in California, and because unions have been more actively organizing here in recent years, labor is doing much better in this part of the country," said Milkman, whose book "L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Market" was published last year. "Intense interest in unionism among immigrant workers, who make up such a large part of Los Angeles' and the state's workforce, also has made the situation here different than in the rest of the country."

Unionization rates are much higher in the public sector than in the private sector. In 2007, well over half of California's public-sector workers belonged to a union. Although the public-sector unionization rate for the nation is considerably lower, at 36.5 percent, than in California, it still dramatically outpaces the nation's private-sector unionization rate of 7.5 percent.

"The main reason for unions' greater strength in the public sector is that they face far less management opposition there," Milkman said. "By contrast, private-sector employers devote extensive resources to resisting unions."

Unionization rates vary across California. Sacramento, with an 18.9 percent unionization rate, leads the state in union density, partly because it has a large public-sector workforce. San Francisco, at 18.3 percent, is a close second, followed by Los Angeles, at 15.3 percent. Of the state's metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents, San Diego has the lowest overall unionization rate (10.4 percent), and Fresno has the second lowest (14.7 percent).

Across the nation, older workers are much more likely to be unionized than younger ones. While Los Angeles and California unionization rates among 16- to 24-year-olds are low --5.7 percent and 7.4 percent, respectively -- they nonetheless outpace the national average of 4.9 percent.

Women also have higher rates of unionization in both Los Angeles and California than in the nation as a whole. While male unionization rates surpass female rates, the gender gap is narrower today than in past years.

African Americans have higher unionization rates than any other racial or ethnic group, with 24.3 percent of those in Los Angeles unionized in 2007, 25.5 percent statewide and 14.9 percent nationwide.

"African Americans have the highest unionization rate because they are disproportionately concentrated in public-sector employment," Milkman said. "They benefit from being employed in such a highly unionized part of the labor market."

For immigrants, the opposite is true. Because so few immigrants are employed in public-sector jobs, researchers found that they were significantly less likely to be unionized than U.S.- born workers. In Los Angeles, 11.2 percent of foreign-born workers are unionized, compared with 18.3 percent of native-born workers.

But there are also important differences within the immigrant population. Foreign-born workers who have become naturalized citizens have unionization rates comparable to those of U.S.-born workers. Immigrants who have been in the U.S. the longest -- those who arrived before 1990 -- also have high unionization rates, the researchers found.

"Recent immigrant organizing successes have attracted a lot of public attention," Milkman said, "but those gains have a limited impact on overall unionization rates because immigrants remain underrepresented in the highly unionized public sector."

The face of unionization is also changing in other ways. Researchers found that the more educated workers are, the higher their unionization rate. In Los Angeles, more than one-fifth of college graduates are unionized, as are 14.5 percent nationwide. Among workers who did not graduate from high school, unionization rates are only 7 percent in Los Angeles and even lower nationally, at 6.3 percent.

"Whereas decades ago the archetypal union member was a male blue-collar worker, today female professionals are more likely than anyone else to be unionized, especially in sectors like educational services, health care and public administration," Milkman said.


The UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment supports faculty and graduate student research on employment and labor topics in a variety of academic disciplines; sponsors colloquia, conferences and other public programming; and is home to an undergraduate minor in labor and workplace studies. The institute also includes the UCLA Labor Center, which performs outreach, education and service in the Los Angeles labor community; the Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program, which conducts research and training for employers and workers; and the Human Resources Round Table, which holds seminars and conferences on employment topics for human resources executives.

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