The answer may surprise you.
Union Membership Data
Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its 2016 union membership data which had more bad news for the labor movement. The highlight statistic is the percentage of workers who are union members, which gives a sense of the labor movement’s overall strength. That number, often referred to as “union density”, has been declining for decades, from a high of 35% in the 1950’s to just 10.7% in 2016.
Along with this number is the percentage of workers covered by a union contract. This is always slightly higher since a small number of workers opt out of official membership but are still covered by the contract, and in 2016 this was 12%. This is a good indication of the labor movement’s impact on the economy since more workers covered by a union contract means more workers with higher wages and better benefits. The AFL-CIO has statistics on the “union difference.” Wages for union members are 26% higher than non-union workers overall, and with even larger differences for Black and Latino workers. And union members are much more likely to have health care and pension benefits.
Metro Area Data
What gets less attention is the metropolitan area data which shows local union membership in a city and surrounding counties. I became interested in this data recently while looking up the numbers for New York City where I live, and which I expected to be among the highest of all metro areas.
Among the largest 10 cities, New York City indeed has the highest union density, followed by Los Angeles and Chicago. Here is the data, showing the higher % Covered numbers. Moreover, it’s no surprise that the southern cities have much lower union density.
However I was surprised when I looked at the top metro areas for union membership. They weren’t the largest cities as I expected, but were small to mid-sized cities. Here are the top 10 metro areas for union density, again looking at the higher % Covered data.
Furthermore, the numbers for the top three are quite high. In Springfield IL, almost half of all workers are in a union, and in the Colorado Springs, CO and Albany, NY areas, more than one-third are. Colorado Springs is particularly surprising since it’s known as a fairly conservative area. We can break this down further and see how much of the union membership is coming from the private or public sectors.
We can see that in all three cases the public sector union density is much higher, as is usually the case. Moreover the distribution of union workers among the private and public sectors differs slightly among the cities. The last column shows how the union workers are distributed. In Springfield, 61% of the union workers are in the private sector, in Colorado Springs, it’s 66%, and in Albany only 51% are, showing that the local labor movement there is almost evenly split between the private and public sectors.
Why Are These the Highest Union Areas?
The public sector union membership is fairly easy to understand. These will mostly be the public school teachers, firefighters, police and other city, county and state workers as well as state university or community college workers. These three cities are among the highest in public sector union density, although many other cities have high numbers as well.
It’s the private sector numbers that really make the difference compared to other cities. These three cities are also the top three for private sector union density, and much higher than the national average of 6.4%. Simply put, they have a higher percentage of union workers than anywhere else mostly because they have higher private sector union presence. This is most likely due to local hospitals, manufacturing, grocery stores and other higher union density sectors. Further investigation would be necessary to see exactly where these union workers are working. One place to start are the websites of the Central Labor Councils for these areas:
Colorado Springs: https://www.coaflcio.org/csalc
I like that there are still some places in the country with a very strong union presence, where most people are either in a union, have family members in a union, or have friends in a union. Hopefully these are the kind of places where union solidarity is a familiar concept and folks will never cross a picket line!
You can easily view the metro area union data at http://unionstats.com.