The State of the Unions

September 2nd, 2011  |  Published in Data, Work  |  1 Comment

Here’s something timely for Labor Day: a couple of my colleagues at CUNY have produced a report on the state of union membership–focused on New York State and City, but with national numbers included as well. (I did some work on the report as well, but my role was limited to designing the layout, so I can take no credit for the writing or data analysis.)

The broad findings will not be surprising to those who follow these things: the percentage of workers who are members of labor unions has fallen at a fairly rapid pace in the past ten years, and has continued to fall during the recession. This trend is driven primarily by the decline in private sector unionization–union density in the public sector is both much higher and fairly stable over the past decade.

There are lots of other interesting details in the report, which includes breakdowns by age, gender, race, education, industry, and immigration status. You should go read the whole thing, but here a few semi-randomly chosen facts that I found interesting:

  • People with at least a 4-year college degree are the most likely to be union members.
  • This is probably because the sector of the economy with by far the highest unionization rates is education, which is also one of the biggest sectors. It’s not surprising to see teachers bearing the brunt of anti-union attacks, when you realize what a huge portion of American union members they constitute.
  • In the U.S. as a whole, men are more likely to be union members than women. In New York City, though, women are actually more unionized–largely because they tend to work in the highly-unionized public sector. Women are the future of the labor movement, if it is to have one.
  • Blacks and whites are unionized at roughly equal rates nationwide, but blacks are much more highly unionized in New York, again probably because blacks are more likely to work in the public sector.
  • It’s true, as you might expect, that immigrant workers are less likely to be unionized than native born workers. But that’s really just a small subplot of the broader story of declining unionization: workers who immigrated recently are much less unionized than those who immigrated earlier, just as young workers are much less unionized than older workers; people who immigrated before 1990 are unionized at a higher rate than native-born workers.

For more analysis, and lots of graphs and tables, go check out the report.

These facts about unions bear on some of the recent discussions of theories of politics and the political basis of progressive politics under neoliberalism. Leftists and liberals still don’t really have a credible strategy for building a winning progressive coalition that isn’t centered on the labor movement. The decline in union density, and the transformation of the labor movement from a private sector to a public sector institution, force us to ask some hard questions. Either the labor movement has to be revived, or we need a new institutional basis for the left. I tend to be pessimistic about reviving labor in anything like its traditional form, since we really only have one historical example of sustained union strength, and that was based on an industrial economy that isn’t coming back.

But there are obviously a lot of things that would help labor to recover at least a bit (EFCA, sigh). I’ll close with one thing that’s based on a personal observation, from on my experience as a member of a union bargaining committee that recently negotiated a first contract. I’m convinced that severing the connection between health care and employment would be really good for unions, despite the labor movement’s opposition to some of the moves in this direction. A huge amount of our negotiating time was taken up with a fight over how the cost of health insurance would be divided between employer and employee, in the context of premiums that are accelerating rapidly for reasons neither workers nor bosses can control. The need to hold down our members’ health care costs sucked up a huge amount of bargaining time and money that could otherwise have gone to providing raises or addressing other aspects of the work environment. If there were a real, quality public option for health care, I would have considered trying to sell my fellow members on a radical idea: let’s propose phasing out employer-provided insurance, getting people onto public plans, and putting those employer savings into big wage increases. But for now, that’s just a dream for the future, and instead the best I can tell those members is that we successfully fought for their health care costs to skyrocket less rapidly than their non-union counterparts.

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  1. Sunday Reading « zunguzungu says:

    September 4th, 2011 at 9:36 am (#)

    […] The State of the Unions […]

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