The Decline of African-American representation in unions and manufacturing, 1979–2006

By John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer, Center for Economic Policy and Research, The Black Commentator, issue 220, 8 March 2007


For much of the postwar period, a higher share of African-American workers have been in unions than workers from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. As union representation and union coverage have declined for the country as a whole, unionization rates for African-Americans have fallen more quickly than for the rest of the workforce. Black workers are still about 30 percent more likely than the rest of the workforce to be in a union today, but as recently as the mid-1980s, black workers were almost 50 percent more likely to be in a union or covered by a union at their workplace. Part of the reason for the decline in unionization rates among African-Americans is undoubtedly related to the decline of U.S. manufacturing. For example, since the 1960s, African-Americans were more likely to work in the heavily unionized automotive sector than white or Latino workers. As these sectors have declined in relative importance, unionization rates for blacks have also dropped. The overall decline in manufacturing, however, is only part of the problem. First, since the early 1990s, the share of black workers in manufacturing has been falling more rapidly than the manufacturing share for the workforce as a whole. From the end of the 1970s through the early 1990s, African-Americans were just as likely as workers from other racial and ethnic groups to have manufacturing jobs. Since the early 1990s, however, black workers have lost considerable ground in manufacturing.

By 2006, blacks were about 15 percent less likely than other workers to have a job in manufacturing. Second, even within manufacturing, unionization rates have been on the decline, to the point where manufacturing workers now are no more likely to be in a union than workers in the rest of the economy (see Schmitt and Zipperer, 2007a). Meanwhile, over the last 25 years, unionization rates have held steady in the public sector, which suggests that employer opposition to unions, not simply economic restructuring, lies behind the decline in overall unionization rates (see Schmitt and Zipperer, 2007b).


Our analysis of data from the Current Population Survey, the government's most important regular source of data on the labor market, also finds:

John Schmitt is a senior economist and Ben Zipperer is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Click here for a PDF version of the complete report


Center for Economic and Policy Research. Uniform Extracts of the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group. 2007.

Schmitt, John and Ben Zipperer. 2007a. “Union Rates Fall in 2006, Severe Drop in Manufacturing,” Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research Union Byte (January).

Schmitt, John and Ben Zipperer. 2007b. “Dropping the Ax: Illegal Firings During Union Election Campaigns,” Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research Briefing Paper (January).