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Union Membership

 February 22, 2019

Union membership declined considerably from 13.1% in 2000 to 10.5% in 2018 and the situation is showing no sign of turning around.

Union membership has been on a steady decline since 1945 when roughly one-third of employed people belonged to unions.  By 1983 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data, there were 17.7 million union workers which represented 20.1% of the workforce.  Today only 14.7 million workers are members of unions and that represents just 10.5% of the workforce.

There are a variety of reasons for this decline. Automation is high on the list, as many labor-intensive jobs have been replaced machinery.  The shift in the economy from being manufacturing based to services is another.  Unions have traditionally been strong in manufacturing with larger plants, and weaker in the service industry with much smaller firms.  Indeed, in the mid-1970’s the manufacturing sector represented 25% of the U.S. economy.  Today manufacturing jobs are just 9% of the total.  Also, many traditional union jobs have been shifted overseas to take advantage of lower wages.

More recently union membership is under attack from a number of different states and cities as those governors and mayors have figured out they simply cannot afford to pay for gold-plated benefits packages that the unions successfully negotiated in days gone by.  The movement away from unions started in Indiana in 2012 but spread to Michigan in 2013 and Wisconsin in 2015.  Michigan was a huge blow for union leaders because it is generally regarded as the birthplace of the modern labor movement.  In 2016 West Virginia became another right to work state followed by Kentucky in 2017.  In all, there are now 28 right-to-work states.

Stephen Slifer

NumberNomics

Charleston, SC


Union Membership — Private vs. Public Sectors

February 22, 2019

The overall rate of union membership has been declining for years and now stands at 10.5%.

The unions are finding it increasingly more difficult to penetrate the private sector.  As shown below, amongst private sector workers only 6.4% belonged to unions in 2018.

Unions have been far more successful in penetrating the various levels of government where the union membership rate for 2018 was 33.9% or five times as high as in the private sector.  Why have unions been so successful in the public arena?  Probably because of a perception that government workers are underpaid and, therefore, in need of union assistance in attaining their fair share of the pie.

Stephen Slifer

NumberNomics

Charleston, SC


Union Membership — By State

February 22, 2017

At the very top of the list is Hawaii where 23.1% of its workers belonged to unions.  Union membership in Hawaii s particularly strong among hospitality workers.  It was closely followed by New York with 22.3%.  The main story in N.Y. is the public sector where 71 percent of government workers belong to unions.,  Then comes Alaska at 18.5% where union membership is especially strong in infrastructure jobs like road building.   Next up is California at 14.7%.

At the opposite end of the spectrum the states with the lowest percentage of union members are South Carolina and North Carolina which are tied at 2.7%.  Then comes Georgia at 4.5% followed by Florida at 5.6%.  All four of these states are so-called right-to-work states where workers are not required to join unions.  There are currently 28 such states states in the country.  And all four of those states are in the south.  Unions have never really been a thing in the South. Even in the ’60’s, the share of union workers in the South was one-half of what it was in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. This is partly cultural. People in the South have long been less supportive of unions than other parts of the country.

The biggest declines in union membership have occurred at states which have a large manufacturing presence — like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  As a result of automation and outsourcing of jobs overseas, union membership in those states has fallen between 4-6% since 2000.  The decline is most pronounced in Wisconsin which became a right-to-work state in 2015.  Union membership in that state has slipped 10% since 2000.

Stephen Slifer

NumberNomics

Charleston, SC


Union Membership — By Occupation

February 22, 2019

In 2018  14.7 million workers belonged to a union.  Of those 7.1 million were in the public sector compared to 7.6 million in the private sector.  However, the union membership rate for public sector works at 33.9% was substantially higher than the rate for the private sector which was 6.4%.

Among occupational groups the highest unionization rates were in protective service organizations which includes police officers and firefighters at 33.9% followed closely by workers in education, training, and library occupations at 33.8% .

The lowest unionization rates were in farming, fishing and forestry occupations (2.4%) , sales and related occupations (3.3%), computer and math (3.7%), food preparation and serving-related occupations (3.9%).

Stephen Sifer

NumberNomics

Charleston, S.C.


Union Membership — Weekly Earnings

February 22, 2019

Unions have been extremely successful in attracting higher wages and benefits for their members when compared to comparable earnings for non-union workers.

In 2018 union members earned $1,099 per week which is 10% higher than the $999 earned by non-union members.   Given these high wages it is not surprising that companies continue to relocate to “right to work” states where union membership is not required.  Other companies will respond by moving operations offshore.  In some sense, the unions’ success is now leading to the steady contraction in membership.

That wage differential largely reflects gold-plated benefits packages  for both pensions and health care.  But someone pays for those higher labor costs.  In the case of governments the burden is born by the taxpayers.  When economic conditions are less than favorable and state and local governments are being forced to lay off workers to shrink bloated budget deficits, those governors and mayors have got to go after the unions and do what they can to trim those benefits and/or weaken union power.  They have had considerable success in recent years most notably in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, and Kentucky.  With each successive victory other government officials work up the courage to take on the unions in their state or city.

Any way you slice it, union power continues to slide.

Stephen Slifer

NumberNomics

Charleston, SC