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Union Membership Rises, but Quality of Jobs Has Changed

February 7, 2008
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Union membership as a part of the overall workforce in the United States grew last year for the first time in a quarter-century, according to analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The news, published January 25, came a day after the Ford Motor Co. announced it would further reduce the number of hourly workers by 11,000 on top of the 44,000 jobs the auto¬maker has shed since 2006.

It represents part of the seismic shift in the makeup of America’s unionized workforce. Today, a union worker is more likely to be a low-skilled, low-paid service worker than a skilled, well-paid manufacturing employee.

“The future of the unions is the $8-an-hour home health care worker,” says David Gregory, professor of law at St. John’s University. The unions may have regained membership with lower-wage service workers, but they cannot regain the dues lost along with higher-paid jobs, Gregory says.

Though the growth in union membership as a percentage of the workforce is decidedly small—a gain of one-tenth of 1 percent to 12.1 percent of the workforce in 2007 from 12 percent in 2006—it represents the first increase for unions since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting annual union membership rates in 1983, when 20.1 percent of the workforce was unionized.

“Union membership has been falling or stagnant year after year after year,” says Ben Zipperer, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “But over the past few years, unions have slowed that decline.”

Unions showed a net gain of 310,000 members, many of them coming from Western states. California added 200,000 union jobs in 2007. For the first time, a greater percentage of the workforce in the West was in a union than the workforce in the Midwest.

In 2007, 11.3 percent of manufacturing workers in the Midwest were unionized, a drop from 11.7 percent in 2006, making manufacturing workers less likely to be unionized than the average worker, according to the government’s labor statistics.

“You always think of manufacturing as a union job, but that’s no longer true,” Zipperer says.

While jobs were lost in manufacturing, the unions made gains in health care, construction and education.

“What you are seeing is a cumulative effect of new approaches,” says Joshua B. Freeman, a professor of labor history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Freeman says unions, particularly those representing service employees and health care workers, have renewed their focus on training and funding union organizing efforts. Union efforts, particularly the seven unions under the umbrella organization Change to Win, have centered on jobs that employers cannot easily ship overseas in sectors that have been growing: health care, construction and education.

“I think the emphasis of Change to Win, and leaders like Andy Stern, is this constant focus on the need to organize,” Freeman says. “It has changed the whole labor movement. But as an organization, Change to Win has not been a big factor.”

While new union workers may not earn as much as colleagues in manufacturing, the growing numbers could prove important in electoral politics, since union households are more likely to vote. This is particularly important in the fight over the federal Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize in a workplace.

Researchers caution that the increase, which is slight, could be a statistical error that could easily be wiped out by a faltering economy.

“There’s no telling what’s going to happen next year,” says Zipperer, “because the economy is very dynamic at the moment.”

—Jeremy Smerd

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