union membership state governments

State of the Unions: Examining Union Membership in State Government

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Key Findings

  • Public sector labor unions in 33 states represent state government employees, a segment of overall public sector employment, for purposes of collective bargaining. For this research, 27 of those states fulfilled public records requests for union membership statistics, and of these, 26 provided comprehensive statistics.
  • New York has the most state government employees represented by a union (219,081) and the most state government dues-paying members (174,149).
  • Public records from the 27 states show just 66.46 percent of unionized employees are dues-paying members of their respective unions.
  • The comprehensive data for state government employees reveals an average unionization rate of just 43.5 percent in these 26 states, with a comparative 29.82 percent paying union dues.
  • States with legal environments favorable to government unions have higher unionization, membership, and density rates. States with worker-friendly legal environments tend to have lower union membership metrics.

Executive Summary

Membership is the primary resource for union influence. Members fund union administration, representation costs, and a portion of a union’s political activity through membership dues. Members can also help a union achieve contractual or political goals. A union can organize its members to protest, contact legislators, or even strike to influence contract negotiations.

This research focuses on three key metrics to better understand the intricacies of government union membership at the state level. Together, they provide a valuable tool in evaluating the impacts of public policy and program changes.[1]

Union membership rate refers to the number of dues-paying union members compared to the number of represented employees. This number may reflect the degree to which the union successfully recruits members among those it already represents.

Unionization rate refers to the number of represented employees—including members and nonmembers—compared to the total number of state employees, including those who are nonunionized for various legal or practical reasons. This number may reflect the degree to which the union has been able to “organize” groups of employees potentially eligible for union representation or the extent to which the state has limited the number of state employees who can unionize.

Union density rate refers to the number of dues-paying union members compared to the total number of state employees. This number gives a sense of the overall level of union entrenchment in state government.

The Commonwealth Foundation submitted public records requests to state government agencies in all 50 states. The requests asked for the number of state employees represented by government unions and the number of state employees paying dues via payroll deduction, data essential—alongside U.S. Census Bureau state workforce statistics—in calculating membership rate, unionization rate, and union density.

Public records requests confirmed that state government employees do not collectively bargain in 17 states.[2] Of the other 33 states, California, Illinois, and Missouri withheld the information due to laws that exempt union status from the state’s public records law. Iowa and Washington claim they do not maintain public records on payroll deductions. Delaware does not provide public records to out-of-state residents.

Among the states with state employee collective bargaining, the overall average membership rate was 66.46 percent. Twenty-one of the 27 responsive states have membership rates exceeding 50 percent, with four states exceeding a 90 percent membership rate. Of large states (i.e., those with over 10,000 state government employees represented by a union), Maryland has the highest public sector union membership rate at 97.43 percent. Wisconsin has the highest public sector union membership rate for state employees among small states (i.e., those with less than 10,000 state government employees represented by a union), at 97.76 percent.

In the 26 states that provided comprehensive union density information, the average unionization rate of state employees is 43.5 percent.[3] Connecticut has the highest unionization rate for state employees, at 100 percent.[4] Connecticut, New York, Minnesota, Alaska, and New Hampshire were the only states with unionization rates exceeding 60 percent. North Dakota has the lowest unionization rate in state government, at less than one percent. In total, eight states had a unionization rate below 30 percent, while only five had a unionization rate above 60 percent.

Connecticut also has the highest union density rate for state employees, with 86.46 percent of all state employees paying dues to a representative union. Connecticut, New York, Alaska, Rhode Island, and Minnesota are the only states with union density rates above 50 percent. Across the 26 states with comprehensive statistics, the average union density rate for state employees is 29.82 percent.

Union density, which functions as a blend of unionization and membership rates, is a useful metric in understanding union activity in a state. Predictably, the legal environment surrounding public sector labor in a state correlates with the union density rate for its state employees. The five states with the highest density rates received grades of “D” or worse in the Commonwealth Foundation’s latest grading of state labor laws.[5]

Of the five states with the lowest union density rates, all five earned a grade of “C” or better.[6] These states’ labor laws are generally more friendly to workers than other states. When coupled with the grades of the states with the highest union density rates, this data suggests that when a state’s legal environment does not blatantly favor government unions, state employees are more likely to decline unionization and union membership.


Several factors, including state law, have an impact on how many state government employees are represented by a union and how many choose to pay dues to their representative unions. In the 26 states that provided comprehensive union membership data, an average of 29.82 percent of all state government employees are dues-paying union members.

Although cause and effect may be impossible to untether, the impact of future changes in law and policy may be measured, in part, by looking at how union density rates respond. As states like New York become more friendly to public sector unions, and states like Florida become more worker-friendly, examining changes in union density can help explain the impact of these policies on workers and unions alike.

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[1]Jarrett Skorup, “The Janus Effect: The Impact of the 2018 Supreme Court Decision on Public Sector Unions,” Mackinac Center, June 15, 2023, https://www.mackinac.org/s2023-05.

[2]Public records requests filed by the Commonwealth Foundation in March 2023.

[3]To the reader, due to Wisconsin’s paycheck protection law, only public safety employees can pay membership dues through payroll deduction. Thus, the information obtained through the public records request only accounts for the state government’s public safety employees.

[4]To the reader, Connecticut’s unionization rate exceeds 100 percent due to differences in workforce size between 2022 and 2023. The most recent Census Bureau data covers 2022, while the public records request data covers 2023.

[5]Priya M. Brannick and Andrew Holman, “The Battle for Worker Freedom in the States: Grading State Public Sector Labor Laws (3rd Edition),” Commonweal Foundation, September 2022, https://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Fifty-State-Labor-Report.pdf.

[6]Brannick and Holman, “The Battle for Worker Freedom in the States.”