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The State of Unions in the US

The State of Unions in the US

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Published by: Noah Franklin on Oct 13, 2012
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TheState
of
Unions
in
the
United
States
JACK
FIORITO*
Florida
State
University,
Tallahassee,
FL
32306
I.
Introduction
I
assess
thestate
of
theunions
in
the
UnitedStateswith
particular
reference
to
devel-
opmentssince
1980-momentous
timesfor
U.S.
unions.Increasedglobalcompeti-
tionand
domesticderegulation,amongothereconomicfactors,combined
to
provide
importantexternal
forcesforchange
in
bargaining
and
unions.Theyear
1980
also
markedthe
beginning
of
a
conservative
turn
in
attitudes
and
nationalgovernment,
startingwith
Reagan's
election
and
followed
by
twoBushregimessandwiching
the
Clinton
administration.With
the
exception
of
the
Clintonera,unionsfaced
a
morehos-
tile
central
government
than
atany
timesince
the
nineteenthcentury.
Theeffectsof
theseforceswere
devastating.Although
private
sector
unionmem-
bershipbegan
a
long-term
decline
as
early
as
1955,
when
unionsrepresented
roughly
one-thirdof
the
U.S.
workforce,
this
declineaccelerateddramatically
in
theearly
1980s.
Somewhatbelated
union
responses
slowedthe
decline
and
perhaps
evenstabi-
lized
unionmembership
density
by
thelate
1990s
or
early2000s,but
at
less
than
one-seventhof
the
workforce,
and
only
one-twelfth
among
privatesector
workers.
Consequently,
thestate
of
the
unionsmust
be
described
as
considerably
weakened.
There
is
littleroom
to
doubtthat
unions
are
"down."
Whether
they
are
"out"
is
anothermatter.Despiteabundantgloomyindicators
on
unionvitality,there
are
signs
of
life
and
sources
ofhopefor
the
future
of
U.S.
unions.
II.
Trends
in
Membership
and
Density,
1980-Present
Official
federalgovernment
statistics
providecomparablemembership
and
density
seriesonlysince
1983,
peggingthat
year's
membershipdensity
at
20.1
percent
in
contrast
to
a
2005figure
of
12.5
percent,withcomparable
figures
forcontract
coverage
of
23.3
percent
and
13.7
percent,respectively
(U.S.
DepartmentofLabor,2006b).
Unofficial
estimates
based
on
the
same
CurrentPopulation
Surveyused
for
the
officialfigures
put
1980
uniondensity
at
23.0percent
and
contractcoverage
at
25.7
percent
(Hirsch
and
Macpherson,
2003,
2006).Thus,uniondensityor
contract
coverage
fell
by
roughly
one-half
from
1980to
2005.
Behind
theseoverall
percentages
areraw
mem-
bership
and
employment
figures.
Union
membership
stood
at
approximately
20.1
mil-
lion
in
1980,
and
declined
to
15.7
million
in
2005.
Meanwhile,
employment
rosefrom
87.5
million
to
125.9
million.
JOURNAL
OF
LABOR
RESEARCH
Volume
XXVII,
Number
1
Winter
2007
 
44
JOURNAL
OFLABOR
RESEARCH
With
the
exception
of
a
private
vs.
publicsectordistinction,
the
aggregate
den-
sity
decline
hasbeen
relativelyuniformacrossindustries
and
occupations,
as
illustrated
in
Table
1,
whichshows
membershipdensity
for
selected
industrysectors
in1983
and2005.
Note,
for
example,that
the
ratio
of
membership
density
in
2005to
mem-
bership
density
in
1983
for
each
of
the
privatesectorsshown
is
.47
plus
orminus
.01.
Disaggregation
can
revealvariations,
to
be
sure.
Trucking,forexample,
appeared
to
experience
one
of
the
moredramaticdeclines
for
a
largeindustry,
from
about
37.7
per-
centdensity
in
1983to10.9
percent
in
2005,
while
density
in
air
transportation
increased
from
42.7
percent
to
49.4
percent.
Overall,
however,
the
uniformity
of
decline
is
more
striking
thanthe
variation.Othershaveoffereddetailedanalyses
of
the
reasons
for
union
decline.Fiorito
and
Maranto
(1986)
identifiedseveral
possibilities,including
the
impact
of
illegal
employeropposition
that
was
emphasized
by
Freeman
and
Medoff
(1984).
A
recentanalysis
by
Flanagan
(2005)
concurred
with
mostearlierstudies
in
discounting
the
oft-cited
"struc-
turalchange"thesis(shifts
in
employment
to
traditionally
less
unionized
occupations,
industries,
regions,workforce
participants,
etc.).
Butroughly
20
years
of
additional
data
and
analyses
led
Flanagan
to
put
more
emphasis
on
decliningemployee
demand
forunionrepresentation
dueto
increases
in
progressive
human
resourcepolicies
and
increasedgovernmentprotection.
Although
not
dismissing
illegal
employer
opposi-
tion,
notingthat"Management
opposition
surelyhas
something
todo
with
lower
union
density..."
(2005:60),
Flanagan
questionedwhether
labor
law
reformsfocused
on
illegal
employerbehavior
wouldhave
a
significant
impact.
Evidence
is
subject
to
conflicting
interpretations,
andthe
record
on
uniondecline
offers
bases
foralternative
views.
Clearly
union
organizingeffort
as
indicated
by
National
LaborRelations
Board
(NLRB)
certification
elections
declinedduring
the
Table
1
Membership
Density
or
Selected
U.S.
Industries,
1983
and
2005
IndustrySector
MembershipDensity,
1983
Membership
Density,2005AllSectors
20.1%
12.5%
Private
Sector
16.5%
7.8%
Manufacturing
27.8%
13.0%
Construction
27.5%
13.1%
Public
Sector
36.7%
36.5%
Federal
(except
Postal)
19.4%
16.5%
Postal74.2%64.4%State35.9%35.0%
Local
51.0%45.8%
Source:
Hirschand
Macpherson
(2006).
 
1980-2005period,particularlyduring1981-1982
when
election
activity
fell
from
over
6,000
elections
peryear
to
under
3,600
(Chaison
and
Dhavale,
1990).
Despite
peri-
odic
upturns,
the
lower
activitylevelhas
persisted,
and
fewer
than3,000
elections
wereheld
in
2004
or
2005
(Fiorito
andJarley,2003;
U.S.
NationalLaborRelationsBoard,
2006).
Unionspursued
non-NLRB
alternatives
such
as
"cardcheck
elections,"
but
these
only
mildlyoffsetthe
NLRB
electiondeclineformostunions.AlthoughFlana-gan
(2005)
attributed
union
density
declinelargely
to
decreasedworkerdemand
for
representation,evidence
of
a
largeand
possiblygrowing"representation
gap"
between
the
numbers
whohaveand
wantunionrepresentationcontradictsthat
view
(Freeman
andRogers,
1999;
Peter
D.
Hart
ResearchAssociates,
2005).
One
canargue
that
a
legal
environmentincreasingly
hostile
to
workers'exercise
of
theirstatutoryrights
(Blocket
al.,
2006)has
forcedunions
to
focus
organizing
efforts
on
onlythe
most"winnable"opportunities,
anda
mildupwardtrend
in
union
winrates
thataccompanies
the
decline
in
electionnumbersaligns
with
that
view.
III.
Trends
in
Industrial
and
Occupational
Composition
of
the
Labor
Movement
Despite
the
overall
uniformity
of
uniondecline,
evensmall
differences
can
accumulate
intolargeones
overextendedperiods,
and
differential
rates
of
decline
have
produced
some
notablechanges
in
the
composition
of
union
membership.
Of
course,
the
public
vs.
privatesectorcontrast
is
a
large
difference
and
its
effect
on
membershipcomposi-tion
is
huge.
In
1983,
publicsectorworkers
were32.2
percentof
union
membership,but
by2005theywere
47
percent.
An
even
largerchange
mayhave
occurredfor
"man-
agement,professional,
and
relatedoccupations"
at
19
percent
of
1983
unionmember-
shipversus
"managerial
and
professional
specialty"
occupations
at
about
36
percent
of
2005
union
membership.
As
the
referenced
job
classessuggest,
however,compar-
isons
are
complicated
by
changes
in
both
occupational
and
industrial
classification
schemes
over
thistimeperiod,
even
for
fairly
broad
classifications.Lessercompara-
bility
problems
arisefor
pre-postsecondary
teachers,
however,
a
large
part
of
the
broadermanagerial-professional
group.
Such
teachers
comprisedabout
9
percent
of
unionmembership
in1983,
but
15
percent
in
2005.
(See
references
to
Gifford
(2005)
andHirsch
and
Macpherson
(2006)
for
the
numbers
used
in
this
section.)
A
real
change
has
occurred
in
the
occupationsheld
by
union
members.
The
change
is
toward
pro-
fessional
jobs,
as
the
figures
forteachers
show,despite
classificationchangesthat
com-
plicatecomparisons
for
broadermanagerial
and
professionaloccupationgroups.
The
aforementioned
figures
underscore
the
intertwined
nature
of
membership
composition
change.Thechangeswithregardtoprivate
vs.
publicsectorsandincreases
in
PreK-12
teacherswithinmembership
ranks
are
somewhatinseparable.This
insep-
arability
should
be
recalled
in
viewing
any
particular
change
asit
maybe
related
to
otherchanges.
As
suggestedsomewhat
by
the
changes
in
uniondensitywithinindustrysectors
noted
earlier,
andtheshift
from
privatetoward
publicsectormembership,membership
composition
has
changed
with
regard
to
industry
more
generally.
The
shiftfrom
pri-
45
JACK
FIORITO

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