The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the results of its annual survey of union membership last Friday. According to the BLS, 12.3% of all wage and salary workers in the United States were members of a union, compared to 12.4% a year earlier. The number of wage and salary workers who were in a union declined by 771,000 to 15.3 million. The BLS release suggests this data reflects the decline in employment levels generally as a result of the recession.

The aggregate numbers include both private sector and public sector employees. In the private sector, the erosion of union membership has been more pronounced. In 2008, 7.6% of workers in private sector industry were members of unions. The BLS survey reports that number has fallen to 7.2%. In absolute terms, there are 834,000 fewer union members in 2009 than there were in 2008. Curious about the public sector? BLS reports that union membership grew from 36.8% to 37.4% of workers. As a result, the majority of workers in unions work in the public sector, not the private sector.

The practicing labor professional should understand these numbers in context. If the numbers are impacted, as the BLS release suggests, by the overall economy, they do not necessarily represent a shift of opinion away from unions. Indeed, expect unions to use this report, along with the wage data the BLS also reported, to argue in favor of EFCA’s passage. It also suggests a potential coming increase in union organizing activity as unions work to reverse their declining numbers.