Monday, March 15, 2010

Union Membership In America 2009: Organized labor, whither goest thou?

On January 22, 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released "Union Members - 2009," its annual report on union membership in America. On the surface it was rather normal. The total number of union members fell by 771,000, which shouldn't be too surprising considering that the economy shed almost 5 million jobs. Union density - the percent of the workforce in labor unions - fell just slightly from 12.4 in 2008 to 12.3 percent in 2009.

The real story is somewhat buried. Union membership on private payrolls declined by about 834,000, while it was increasing by about 64,000 in the public sector. (Yes, I know the numbers don't add up. Must be the rounding.) As a consequence, despite the fact that only about one in six jobs are with government, the majority of all union members in America are public employees. This was a long time in coming. When modern record keeping on union membership began in 1983 only about 32 percent of all union members worked for government. Back in the union heyday of the 1950's - using numbers that aren't quite comparable - it was about 5 percent.

This shift will have inevitable internal and external political consequences for organized labor. With their future clearly tied to the growth of government employment, labor unions will be even more adamant about the need to increase the size of government and, of course, the taxes to pay for it. The same is true of union opposition to any effort by government save money by contracting-out (privatizing) public services to the private sector.

At the same time, unions run the strong risk of being perceived by private sector employees they are trying to organize as a government employee thing. What will be the consequences for union organizers when those they are attempting to woo only see unions as the reason for unresponsive, ineffective government and high taxes?

Recently the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported a remarkable downturn in public support for labor unions, "Favorability Ratings of Labor Unions Fall Sharply". It would be interesting to know how much union defense of bloated public payrolls, compensation and benefits during the economic downturn had to do with it. It would also be interesting to know what percent of the "Cadillac" health insurance plans union lobbyists fought so vehemently against taxing during the debate on health insurance reform belonged to government workers.

All of the data on employment and union membership comes from the BLS Current Population Survey (CPS). (I refer to comparable numbers because in 1983 the survey methodology was improved and the numbers prior to 1983 don't quite fit with the numbers after 1983. There are no CPS numbers on union membership for 1982.) The CPS is an extremely accurate source consisting of about 60,000 interviews each month.

Drs. Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson do a great job of providing comprehensive state-by-state information from this survey on their web page at Union Stats dot com. The only problem I have with this is that it is all annual making it difficult to identify trends. The Public Service Research Foundation has used this data to produce a very interesting set of tables and charts showing employment, union membership and union density - total, private, public, manufacturing and construction from 1983 to 2009 for the nation and for each state. This information is, unfortunately, not available on their web site but is available without charge on request. E-mail requests to Please be sure to mention that you learned about them in this blog.

Further reading: If you are interested in insights into these changes from one of the nation's leading demographers of labor unions - Leo Troy, professor emeritus at Rutgers University - take a look at his "Twilight of the Old Unionism."

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