The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 07, 2020

More discouraging numbers for union employment

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

For the second straight year, Michigan - not long ago a stronghold for organized labor - saw its unionization numbers decline at a rate higher than the national average. 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers released Jan. 22 showed that the share of Michigan's union penetration in the workforce declined to 13.6 percent in 2019 from 14.5 percent in 2018 (it was 15.6 percent in 2017). Michigan had 589,000 union members in 2019, down from 625,000 union members in 2018. Long a top-five state for unionization percentage, Michigan is now tied for 12th among the states.

Nationwide, U.S. membership numbers were also hardly inspiring, which was hardly surprising given the unrelenting, long-term downward trend and near constant attacks on union members. The BLS estimated that the U.S. had 14.57 million union members last year, down 170,000 (0.2 percent) compared to 2018. 

The nation's 10.3 percent unionization rate in 2019 (combining both public and private sector workers) was the lowest since 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available. The union membership rate that year was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.

"The numbers reflect both the tremendously difficult barriers workers seeking to form a union continue to face and the unmatched resilience of working people in our desire to win bargaining power on the job," said a statement by the AFL-CIO. 

One of those barriers is the corporate-backed and right-wing implementation of right-to-work laws, which have been adopted in 27 states, including Michigan. Such laws allow workers to enjoy the benefits of union membership without paying dues. And, the Janus decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018 initiated what is basically a national right to work law for all public employees.

"It is worth noting," said Heidi Shierholz of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, "that the erosion of union coverage is not because workers don’t want unions anymore - survey data show that in fact, a higher share of nonunion workers today say they would vote for a union in their workplace than was the case 40 years ago.

"One key contributor to the decline of unions is fierce corporate opposition to union organizing. It is now standard, when workers seek to organize, for employers to hire union avoidance consultants to coordinate intense anti-union campaigns. We estimate that employers spend nearly $340 million per year hiring union avoidance advisers to help them prevent employees from organizing."

Following are some highlights from the BLS data, according to the EPI:

*In the U.S. construction industry, the unionization rate fell to 12.6 percent in 2019 from 12.8 percent in 2018, even though the industry gained 7,000 workers last year. 

*Nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 81 percent of earnings for workers who were union members ($892 versus $1,095). 

*Among states, Hawaii and New York had the highest union membership rates (23.5 percent and 21.0 percent, respectively), while South Carolina and North Carolina had the lowest (2.2 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively).

*In 2019, 7.1 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.5 million workers in the private sector. The union membership rate declined over the year in the private sector by 0.2 percentage point to 6.2 percent. The unionization rate for public-sector workers was little changed over the year at 33.6 percent.

More than half of the 14.57 million union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states (California, 2.5 million; New York, 1.7 million; Illinois, 0.8 million; Pennsylvania, 0.7 million; and New 
Jersey, Ohio, and Washington, 0.6 million each).

Private-sector industries with the highest unionization rates included utilities (23.4 percent), transportation and warehousing (16.1 percent), and telecommunications (14.1 percent). Low unionization rates occurred in finance (1.1 percent), insurance (1.4 percent), professional and technical services (1.4 percent), and food services and drinking places (1.4 percent).

Acknowledging the tough path ahead for organized labor, the AFL-CIO suggested, "make no mistake: 2019 was a year of undeniable momentum for collective action and collective bargaining."

The labor umbrella group pointed to increased teacher activism, with gain-making walk-outs in Colorado, West Virginia and Chicago. The GM strike by nearly 50,000 UAW members " secured a contract with higher pay, no change to their health care plan, a defined path for temporary workers and improved time off policies," the labor federation said. 

The AFL-CIO also pointed to the 20,000 CWA members in the Southeast who went on strike to protest unfair labor practices at AT&T, winning a new contract with higher wages and additional job security. And, graduate student employees across the country fought for basic workplace protections.