Union membership down to 11.2% in 2019, a drop led by the public sector

Section: Social Statistics | Eduardo Peret | Design: Brisa Gil

August 26, 2020 10h00 AM | Last Updated: October 14, 2020 01h18 PM

  • At a glance

  • The union membership rate fell from 12.5%, in 2018, to 11.2%, in 2019, with a record decrease in the segment of Public administration, defense and social security, education, health and social services, which had a reduction by 531 thousand in the number of union members.
  • The membership rate of workers in the public sector fell from 25.7% to 22.5% from 2018 to 2019.
  • Another highlight in the series is that of Transportation, storage and mailing, which had 20.9% of union membership in the start of the time series and had fallen to 11.2% by 2012.
  • Piauí held the highest union membership rates in the entire time series, with 23.8% in 2012 and 23.9% in 2019, whereas Alagoas was in the last position, with 6.1% in 2019.
  • The number of employers or self-employed persons in enterprises listed in the National Register of Legal Entities (CNPJ) reached its peak in the series in 2019, 29.3% or 8.4 million persons.
  • Among female employers, 85.8% had a formal working contract, versus 77.9% of male employers. As for self-employed women, 21.8% had a formal contract, whereas, among men, that proportion was hit 19.2%.
  • Affiliation to cooperatives by self-employed persons and employers has been on a downward trend since the start of the series (6.4%) and reached its lowest level in 2019 (5.2%).
More than 50% decrease in union membership in 2019 took place in public administration - Photo: Tony Winston/Agência Brasil

Workers affiliated to unions were 1.2% of the employed population in the country, amounting to 10.6 million persons in 2019, with a decrease by 951 thousand against 2018, when the rate was 12.5%. More than half of that decrease (531 thousand persons) took place in the segment of  public administration, defense and social security, education, health and social services. With a record in this time series that was initiated in 2012, for the first time, the group left the first position in the ranking of rates, being after Agriculture, forestry, fishing and aquaculture (18.4% versus 19.4%). The union membership rate of workers in the public sector fell from 25.7% in 2018 to 22.5% in 2019. 

Data comes from the supplement Additional Characteristics of the Labor Market 2019, which belongs to the Continuous National Household Sample Survey (Continuous PNAD) released today (26) by the IBGE. 


Although the Brazilian labor reform of 2017, after which the annual contribution to unions was no longer compulsory, was focused on workers under the CLT regime, results indicate that union organization as a whole was affected. “Major unions aggregate workers from the public and private sector, such as professor and physicians, for example. At first, activities with a majority of contracts under the CLT regime recorded biggest decreases in 2018, but the loss of resources and capacity of organization and mobilization of trade unions may have affected the public sector as well, ”Adriana Beringuy, analyst at the IBGE, explains.

The researcher adds that retirement was another relevant factor: “During the legal course of the Social Security reform in 2019, many public workers entitled to retirement made that choice. The first semester of 2019 registered more retirement requests than the entire year of 2018. Older workers were most commonly affiliated to unions, so retirement led to a drop in membership rates.”

The analysis by employment status corroborates those results. The union membership rate of workers in the public sector fell from 25.7% to 22.5% from 2018 to 2019. On the other hand, the rate of auxiliary household workers, concentrated in the rural activity, went from 11.9% to 11.8% in the period. That can explain the lower intensity of union membership in the segment of Agriculture, fishing and aquaculture (from 12.5% to 11.2%).

Union membership in transportation is almost half as in 2012 

Another highlight in the series is the decrease in Transportation, storage and mailing, which in had 20.9% of membership in the start of the time series (2012), recorded a steep drop between 2017 (17.5%) and 2018 (13.5%) and hit 11.9% in 2019. “There has been an increment in the population employed in the segment in the last few years, mainly due to the activity lad transportation of passengers, on a rise due to the number of app drivers. A characteristic of the group is to work without a formal contract, with no union participation. So there is anna increase in the basis of the employed population and a reduction in union membership, which results in a drop of the rate,” Ms. Beringuy explains.

After a rise in 2013, union membership recorded no increase in following years of the series. Decrease worsened in 2016, but despite the increase of the employed population in 2017, the scenario did not change. Among the states, Piauí held the highest union membership rate in all the time series, with 23.8% in 2012 and 23.9% in 2019. Tocantins had the lowest rate in the start of the series (8.4%), but, in 2019, Alagoas was in the last position, with 6.1%.  

Less than one third of the sel-employed workers and employers have a CNPJ registry 

According to the survey, the number of self-employed persons or employers in enterprises listed under the CNPJ reached its peak in the series in 2019, 29.3% or 8.4 million persons. “Despite the increase against 2012 and the recovery after the decrease in 2017, that percentage is still relatively low, below a third of the total in the group. The CNPJ registry evidences a trend to formalization of the enterprises. The lowest regional rates, registered in the North and Northeast, reflect th high occurrence of informal jobs in both Major Region”, according to Adriana Beringuy. She says that “by considering the two groups separately, there is a higher incidence of CNPJ registry among employers. The self-employed population, with a bigger relative weight in that group, has a very low percentage of registries, which pushes the rate downwards.” 

Both categories had a predominance of women with a CNPJ registry in both categories. Among the employers, 85.8% had a registry, whereas among men that proportion was 77.9%. Among self-employed female workers, 21.8% had a registry, whereas among men, that proportion was 19.2%. 

Among the groups of activity, the lowest CNPJ coverage was that of Agriculture, livestock, forestry, fishing and aquaculture (7.2% of the self-employed persons and 34.4% of the employers) and the highest, that of Trade, repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles (28.6% and 89.7%, respectively).

On the other hand, membership in cooperatives by self-employed workers and employers has been on a downward trend since the start of the series (6.4%), and reached its lowest result (5.2%) in 2019. The South (9.3%) presents the highest percentage of cooperative members, whereas the Southeast has the lowest, 3.9%. Almost half of the workers cooperatives are found in the agricultural segment.