General Business

NJ Union Membership Rising in Public Sector, Down Sharply in Private Sector over 30 Years

Police officers, teachers, healthcare workers, and other government employees have contributed to a 25 percent increase in public sector union membership across New Jersey over the last three decades, according to a report issued by the Labor Education Action Research Network (LEARN) at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. The report finds private sector union membership has gone in the opposite direction, plunging more than 40 percent since the late 80’s except for strong growth in the construction industry.

“Employer opposition is the primary barrier to unionization,” said Michael Merrill, Professor of Professional Practice and Director of LEARN. “In the public sector, where workers have not had to contend with entrenched employer opposition, union organizing efforts have been markedly more successful. But in the private sector, employers can and do interfere with unionization efforts more often. As a result, good union jobs in the private sector are becoming increasingly scarce.”

Researchers analyzed 18 months of unpublished federal data for January 2017 through June 2018, drilling down on New Jersey union membership by occupation, race, gender, and other characteristics not typically available on a state-by-state basis. Their report, The State of New Jersey Labor, provides a baseline for measuring the impact of the June 27, 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which could have a significant effect on union membership. Findings include:

By Sector

  • Approximately 15.7 percent of New Jersey’s workers are union members, ranking #6 nationally.
  • There are 665,000 union members in the state: 371,000 public sector and 294,000 private sector.
  • Between 1988 and 2018, public sector union membership in New Jersey grew 25 percent while private sector union membership fell 43 percent.
  • Today 61 percent of the state’s public sector workers belong to a union, compared to 34 percent nationally.
  • Just 8 percent of private sector workers are unionized, versus 6.5 percent nationally.

By Occupation

  • Unionization is on the rise among New Jersey’s state and local government employees—notably in education and healthcare—but it is trending downward among federal employees in the Garden State.
  • The occupations with the highest levels of unionization are uniformed protective services (56 percent), education (49 percent), and construction (37 percent).
  • Among union-eligible occupations, those with the lowest unionization include food preparation/service (7 percent) and personal care/service (5 percent).
  • Manufacturing has taken an especially hard hit. Over the last 20 years, employment is down 40 percent and union membership is down 90 percent in that industry.

By Demographics

  • Though New Jersey has become more diverse in the last two decades, the non-white share of union members has dropped slightly during that time—from 23 to 21 percent.
  • Asian workers are significantly less likely to unionize compared to white, black, and Hispanic workers. While 10 percent of the state’s workers identify as Asian, only 4 percent of union members are Asian.
  • The share of women in unions rose from 44 to 46 percent in the last 20 years, but men still hold the majority today (56 percent).
  • “Wage earners want unions and the public generally supports them,” SMLR Postdoctoral Associate Todd Vachon said. “The best targets of opportunity for expanding worker voice in the New Jersey economy are the sizeable number of health practitioners and transportation workers, including material handlers at the proliferating distribution centers of the new ‘gig economy.’”


New Jersey union membership figures are extrapolated from January 2017 – June 2018 data. National figures are based on 2017 data only. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is scheduled to release its 2018 union membership report on Friday, January 18. LEARN researchers will be available to discuss the report and will analyze unpublished data to produce another State of New Jersey Labor Report later this year.

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