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Changing patterns of unionization

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In 2004, more than 4 million workers were unionized, up 43% from 1977. The increase in unionization, however, has lagged behind employment growth. The proportion of workers belonging to a union has actually declined substantially among young male workers: the unionization rate for men aged 25 to 34 dropped from 43% in 1981 to 24% in 2004.

The decrease in union membership among young men was partly responsible for the erosion of their wages and pension plans in the 1980s and 1990s. The decline in unionization rates also coincided with a drop in wages and pension benefits among new hires from 1981 to 2004.

Women tend to work in highly unionized industries such as education, health care and public administration. As a result, while the proportion of unionized men fell sharply, the percentage of unionized women remained almost unchanged from 1981 to 2004. These divergent trends resulted in the convergence of male and female unionization rates—the difference was less than one percentage point in 2004—which in turn may have helped narrow the wage gap between the sexes.

Chart: Unionization rate, by sex and ageThere are more and more unionized employees among part-time workers and workers in temporary jobs, two groups with steadily growing employment numbers. Despite this growth, the unionization rates for workers in these types of jobs are still very low. In addition, proportionally fewer part-time and temporary workers have employee benefits such as medical and dental plans and employer-sponsored pension plans. They also tend to have lower average wages than the working population as a whole.