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Economy Expands, Unions Decline

By Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C.

February 24, 2020

A strong economy does not “raise all boats.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its January 22, 2020 press release, private and public union membership in 2019 declined to 14,574,000 from 14,744,000 in 2018. Private sector union membership declined to 6.2% in 2019 compared to 6.4% for 2018, and private sector representation by unions declined from 7.2% in 2018 to 7.1% in 2019. In 1983 - the first year BLS released this data - there were 17.7 million union members, comprising 20.1% of all private and public sector employees.

Private sector employers with the highest level of unionization are utilities (23.4%), transportation/warehousing (16.1%), and telecommunications (14.1%). The lowest unionization levels are in finance (1.1%), insurance (1.4%), professional and technical services (1.4%), and food services/drinking establishments (1.4%).

Black workers are members at a higher percentage than other demographics. 11.2% of black employees are members, while 10.3% of white employees, 8.8% of Asian employees, and 8.9% of Hispanic employees are members. Thus, the overall difference in membership based on race or national origin is minimal. In fact, union membership for black employees declined by 1.3% from 2018. The strongest age range for union membership is ages 45 to 64, with 12.6% of individuals in those age groups belonging to unions.

States with the highest union membership include Alaska (17.1%), California (15.2%), Illinois (13.6%), Michigan (13.6%), New Jersey (16.7%), New York (21%), Rhode Island (17.4%), and Washington (18.8%). Those with the lowest percentage of union membership are Georgia (4.1%), Idaho (4.9%), North Carolina (2.3%), South Carolina (2.2%), Tennessee (4.6%), Texas (4%), and Virginia (4.4%).

So now that we’ve looked at the statistics, what do they mean? One would think that labor’s failure to grow in an expanding economy means that employees are satisfied at work and unions therefore do better when employees face difficult times. However, this has not been case historically. Whether employees do well or not does not appear to motivate employees to select or join unions. Instead, the lack of growth in the labor movement is due to labor’s outdated message to employees. During organizing campaigns, we see various unions take the approach of “good employee, evil employer.” This does not resonate with today’s workforce overall.

Unions are major contributors to political candidates, approximately 98% of whom are Democrats. It will be curious this election cycle to see how those states with strong union density other than California, New York, and New Jersey vote. For example, in 2016, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania voted for President Trump. If the message from the Democratic nominee is one of income inequality, will that resonate with union members particularly in those key states President Trump carried by a narrow margin in 2016? President Trump received the highest percentage of union support of any Republican candidate since President Reagan. In our view, where labor misses the mark is its somewhat universal “us versus them” approach toward employers. For all the collective bargaining agreements we have negotiated as a firm, not once do any of us recall a union saying to the employer at the bargaining table, “What can we do to help grow the business?” Instead of characterizing itself as a potential relationship partner with the employer, the union messaging politically and at the workplace is one of an adversarial relationship, which simply does not appeal to enough employees in order to support unions.

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