Public sector workers continue to drive union participation

Feds rally outside a Washington, D.C. courthouse where a union lawsuit is being tried. Photo credit: Chase Gunter 

Public sector union membership continues to outpace the private sector, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The BLS report indicates that the percentage of unionized public sector employees dipped slightly from 2018 to 2019 as did the total number of unionized feds and local workers, with the number of unionized state workers climbing slightly.

Overall, public sector union membership rate is 33.6%, compared to 6.2% for workers in the private sector. There are just over 7 million unionized public sector workers, out of a total employee base of 21 million. By contrast, more than 120 million Americans are employed in the private sector, and just 7.5 million of them are union members. The union membership rate in the U.S. declined by 0.2% from 2018 to 2019, to 10.3%. The overall number of union members in the U.S. remained the same as it was in 2018, at 14.6 million.

"It is our experience that civil servants have an especially strong understanding of the power that comes with the ability to bargain collectively, such as workplace fairness and being an active partner in providing taxpayers with high quality service from their government," Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement supplied to FCW. "Public employees, through their unions, have a long history of defending the nonpartisan merit-based civil service system, which ensures government agencies are staffed by skilled professionals who have dedicated their careers to public service."

The annual union membership report for 2019, comes as government employee unions are adjusting to a Supreme Court ruling that restricted their ability to collect dues from non-members who benefit from union contracts.

Additionally, public sector unions have faced headwinds at the federal level – many stemming from three executive orders signed in May 2018 and are just now being put into effect after legal challenges. Unions say the orders have restricted their abilities to conduct business such as collective bargaining, pursue workplace grievances while on "official time," and access facilities for union business.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


  • Workforce
    coronavirus molecule (creativeneko/

    OMB urges 'maximum telework flexibilities' for DC-area feds

    A Sunday evening memo ahead of a potentially chaotic commute urges agency heads to pivot to telework as much as possible.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID: 1993681 By Jurgen Ziewe

    Spinning up telework presents procurement challenges

    As concerns over the coronavirus outbreak drives more agencies towards expanding employee telework, federal acquisition contracts can help ease some of the pain.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.