The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 08, 2019

Persistent malaise vexes U.S. union membership

By The Building Tradesman

The percentage of union members in Michigan's workforce declined in 2018 to 14.5 percent from 15.6 percent in 2017, a steeper drop than steadier national unionization numbers. The decline nearly wiped out a 1.2 percent increase in the state's union penetration from 2016 to 2017.

New data on union membership released Jan. 18 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the U.S. union membership rate - the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions -was 10.5 percent in 2018, down by 0.2 percentage point from 2017. The BLS said the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions was 14.7 million in 2018, little changed from 2017. 

In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers. It is widely acknowledged that the U.S. labor movement's long decline intensified after President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

Labor unions in Michigan and in other states have been rocked by the passage of right-to-work laws in recent years (there are now 27 RTW states), which allow workers in a bargaining unit to enjoy the benefits of a union contract without having to pay dues. And President Trump's appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court re-established a conservative majority on the court, which last June led to the 5-4 Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31 decision. The Janus case basically established right-to-work for all public sector workers in the U.S. - but it probably didn't have an effect on this year's numbers, said researcher Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute.

"The number of American workers represented by a labor union ticked down last year, extending a decades-long trend," Shierholz wrote after reviewing the federal union numbers. "Do these numbers show us anything about the impact of last summer’s Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31? The short answer is no. The Janus decision prohibits state and local government unions from requiring that workers who benefit from union representation pay their fair share of that representation (it was already illegal for members of a bargaining unit to be required to either be union members or to pay for any political activities). 

"The intended effect of the decision by those who backed it was to undermine the finances of public sector unions by exposing them to the 'free rider' problem. The BLS data do not, however, provide any information on whether workers are paying fair-share fees, simply whether they are members of a union or represented by a union."

Here are some other nuggets from the annual survey, which was released despite the government shutdown:

*Among states, Hawaii and New York had the highest union membership rates (23.1 percent and 22.3 percent, respectively), while North Carolina and South Carolina had the lowest (2.7 percent each). Michigan's 14.5 percentage rate ranked No. 10. When Michigan's right-to-work law was adopted in December 2012, our state's union percentage was 16.6 percent.

*The unionization rate in the U.S. construction industry fell from 14.0 percent in 2017 to 12.8 percent in 2018. The BLS survey said there were 1.048 million construction union members in the U.S. last year.

*Unionization among U.S. public sector workers nationally remains much higher than the private sector, at 33.9 percent, a drop of .5 percent, the report said. The numbers are dismal in the private sector, where just 6.4 percent workers belonged to a union in 2018, a decline from 6.5 percent in 2017. (A slightly higher figure, 7.2 percent, were represented by unions in 2018  but were not officially members.)

*Union members are concentrated in a narrow number of states. The largest numbers of union members lived in California (2.4 million) and New York (1.9 million). More than half of the 14.7 million union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states (California, New York, Illinois, 0.8 million; Pennsylvania, 0.7 million; and Michigan, Ohio, and Washington, 0.6 million each).

*Nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 82 percent of earnings for workers who were union members ($860 vs. $1,051).