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Open Access Publications from the University of California

California Union Membership: A Turn-of-the-Century Portrait


This analysis of California union membership draws on data from the 2001–02 California Union Census (CUC), a new survey of local unions conducted by the Institute for Labor and Employment, as well as selected data from the Current Population Survey. The focus is the recent divergence of California from the United States as a whole: while union density has continued its long decline nationwide, in California it has increased over the past few years. This divergence reflects not only the ways in which labor’s political strength in the state has facilitated recruiting new union members but also California’s distinctive labor history. The relatively large share of union membership held by the Service Employees (SEIU) in California yielded disproportionate growth for the state’s labor movement in the 1990s, as this union became the nation’s single most rapidly growing labor organization. The authors also examine variation in union membership by industry, region, and across key demographic groups. In both California and the nation, for example, union density is much higher in the public sector than in the private sector. Women and African Americans have higher unionization rates in California than nationally; the rates are similar in the state and nation for immigrant workers, who are less unionized than their native-born counterparts in both cases. Finally, the authors look at data on union staffing levels. The key finding here is that organizing staff are employed by relatively few local unions, but that those that do employ them are the fastest growing.

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