Industry Union Density Changes Since the 1980's
It’s pretty bleak all over
This year I’ve been looking at lot at National Labor Relations Board and Bureau of Labor Statistics union membership data. See these previous posts about union elections, union membership, strikes and geography.
This time, let’s take a look at changes in union density by industry. Union density is the percentage of workers who are union members or covered by a union contract, and is a measure of the strength of the labor movement and its effect on the economy. For example, the higher the union density, the higher overall wages will be and more workers will have health and pension benefits. See the AFL-CIO’s data on the better conditions you get when you organize a union. So looking at union density by industry measures the percentage of workers in an industry who are union members.
The great folks at Unionstats.com provide all this info going back to 1986, so I decided to compare changes from 1986 to 2016, a 30 year period. During this time, overall union density had dropped from about 20% to 12%, part of a long decline since the 1970’s, which I have previously discussed. This decline of the labor movement is strongly correlated with greater income inequality, one of the major political issues of our time.
To compare industry data from 1986 to 2016 involves a bit of data cleanup because the sectors in 2016 were sometimes placed within different industries than in 1986. For example, restaurants were placed within Retail Trade in 1986 but were moved to Accommodation and Food Service in 2016. So after making those adjustments, we can compare these years.
Employment and Union Workers
Here is a chart showing employment for 20 industry categories, sorted by largest in 2016, as well as the number of workers covered by a union contract. The table follows with these numbers.
We can see some interesting employment trends. During this time, the overall economy grew from 97 million to 136 million workers, an increase of about 41%. Most sectors, including the largest ones of Health Care, Retail, Education and Accommodation, have grown, while some have declined including the two Manufacturing sectors - Durable (think cars) and Non-Durable (think clothing). This makes sense according to our notions of how globalization has worked, where non-exportable domestic services have increased, and a lot of goods production was sent overseas or automated.
The Covered Workers data shows the number of workers covered by a union contract. Overall, the number of union workers declined from 19.3 million to 16.3 million, or about 16%, even as the economy expanded by 41%. We can see large increases in union membership in Health and Education, and again, large declines in the Manufacturing sectors. This also makes sense, as Health and Education have seen a lot of union organizing while many Manufacturing union members have lost their jobs. Overall, nine industries, all service oriented, increased their union workers, and 11 industries saw a decline.
The Union Density data completes this story. Here is the % Covered Workers in each industry for both years (on the right), and the change over the 30 year period (on the left). The data follows in the table.
What’s amazing, and alarming for the labor movement, is that every single industry saw a union density drop. Maybe this isn’t all that surprising since we know overall union density dropped by 8%, but we may have expected at least some industries to have grown. Overall, six industries saw a double digit union density decrease. And in 1986 there were eight industries with over 20% union density and in 2016 there are only four.
It’s a familiar story that the Manufacturing sectors have declined in union density. But perhaps most surprising is that even supposed growth areas for unions like Health Care, Education and Public Administration have declined as well. All these sectors have added new union members, but not as fast as the sectors have grown overall. For the labor movement to just get back to the 20% density it had in 1986, it would have to organize almost 11 million more workers. To get back to the 1/3 density it had in 1950's, it would need almost 29 million more workers.
What Should the Labor Movement Do?
The increased employer resistance to unions in recent decades has been well documented. Since at least the 1990’s, when the continued union density decline became widely understood as a crisis, the labor movement has debated strategies to grow again. My previous posts earlier this year discuss in more detail various aspects of this problem, and a good source for labor movement news and strategies for revival is Labor Notes. But these numbers show that the challenge for labor is everywhere in the economy.