Union membership continues to plummet

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Union membership has been declining for decades. The Current Population Survey conducted by the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor shows unionization at 29 percent nationally and 36 percent in New York State as of 1964. By 2017, the national average had fallen to 11 percent and New York  to 24 percent.

State policy is one factor. The National Conference of State Legislators reports that “right-to-work”provisions prohibiting mandatory union membership have been approved in 28 states beginning with Florida in 1943, with Kentucky and Missouri passing laws just last year.

Another factor is the decline in manufacturing, traditionally a union stronghold. Nationally, there were 7.8 million union members working in manufacturing workers in 1973, or 39 percent of the total manufacturing workforce. By 2017 the manufacturing workforce has shrunk to 14.7 million from 20.1 million in 1973 and only 10 percent of these were union members. Globalization has also played a role as competition from nations with cheap labor have put pressure on manufacturing firms to cut costs.

Public sector unions have stood their ground in many states, with New York State leading the nation at 67 percent. South Carolina is at the other extreme with 7 percent of public employees as union members.

Unionization varies by metropolitan area, too. As noted by Adam Urbanski in his interview with the Beacon, the level of public sector unionization in New York is higher than in most of the Michigan and Wisconsin regions. Eighteen percent of all Rochester workers are union members. Sixty-two percent of public employees are members of a union. With its large public sector workforce, the Albany metropolitan area has one of the highest union-member shares in the nation.

One thought on “Union membership continues to plummet

  1. I am a baby boomer who grew up in the greater New Bedford, Massachusetts area where textiles were the number one manufacturing industry. The Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) was created in 1939, formed from a combination of the Textile Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC-CIO) and the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). Four local unions affiliated themselves with the New Bedford Joint Board, within TWUA, and represented approximately 14,000 workers. As a result, working conditions and pay improved for textile workers.

    However, this was to be short-lived. With the “right-to-work” laws enacted in many of the southern states, textiles migrated there and, eventually, overseas.

    What contributed to the peak unionization rates of the 1950s? I remember teachers saying that America was the land of limitless resources and opportunities. Aside from Pearl Harbor, the U.S. emerged from WWII with no infrastructure damage and became one of the two superpowers. Europe and Japan had their manufacturing facilities mostly destroyed so we faced little competition.

    American workers’ wages began to rapidly increase—we were realizing our dream! Even non-union shops had to keep their wages somewhere near the union rate in order to attract workers. There was in essence a social contract—workers would cooperate with management to produce, and management would pay workers at good rates for life.

    However, things began to change in 1973 with the advent of the oil embargo. By this time Japan and Europe had rebuilt their factories (with our help), more efficient than our own. These circumstances led to more expensive resources and global competition for U.S. manufacturers. American de-industrialization had begun, thus ending the social contract between labor and management. Wages flattened and many jobs were lost to foreign competition and automation—continuing to this day.

    Given dwindling global resources and climate change, no nation can achieve the prosperity that we once achieved. What unionization (even with its shortcoming) can do is better redistribute the resources of the shrinking pie.

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