Friday, September 9, 2011

Union Membership Falls in NYC, Study Finds

The percentage of the city workforce that is unionized is shrinking, though it remains double the U.S. average. And the gap between public-sector and private-sector unionization is at an all-time high.

Organized labor has been all over the local news lately—from an ongoing walkout at the Central Park Boathouse, to the recent Verizon strike, to a summer of contract squabbles in the construction industry.

But while unions remain influential in the city, substantial erosion has occurred in recent years in their membership rates, according to a new report by City University of New York researchers.

Among workers living in the city, 22.9% were union members in the 18 months ending in June, down from 24.6% in January 2009 through June 2010, the report found. Losses in union membership have been disproportionately concentrated in the private sector.

The authors hypothesize that employment has contracted in highly unionized areas and expanded in sectors with low union participation. They do not point to specific examples, but during the period studied, the heavily unionized construction industry has been decimated and the Old London factory that produced Melba toast took its 228 jobs to North Carolina.

Despite the erosion, New York's unionization rate remains the highest of the 50 states and more than double the U.S. average of 11.9%, largely on the strength of union density in the public sector. New York's count of more than 1.9 million union members is more than any state except California, which has a far larger population. The city has more than 750,000 union members, about 40% of the state's total.

Among private-sector workers in the city, 14% are organized, twice the national rate and slightly higher than the state rate. Nearly 71% of public-sector workers in the city and state are in unions, almost double the national public-sector rate.

The 57-point gap between public and private sector unionization rates is an all-time high, according to Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and one of the report's authors. As recently as 1986, the city's private-sector union density was 25.3%.

“The gap is huge, and the risk is that the public-sector union world becomes isolated socially and politically from the rest of society,” she said.

Indeed, in many of the recent labor battles around the country, a familiar refrain has been that public-sector workers receive benefits that many private sector workers don't. As the gap between public- and private-sector unionization widens, it becomes harder for the public sector unions to hang on to their gains.

“Like your grandmother said, ‘You don't put all your eggs in one basket,'” said Ed Ott, a distinguished lecturer at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies and former labor leader. “We're too heavily concentrated in the public sector.”

And as the economy sputters, that sector’s density is now also in danger of declining. “In the wake of the fiscal crises generated by the current economic downturn, public-sector unions have been increasingly on the political defensive,” the report argues. “Thus despite New York City and State’s unusually high density levels … this is a period of profound challenges for organized labor.”

Three predominantly public-sector industries account for 63.2% of unionized workers in the city: education, health care and public administration. Manufacturing accounts for a far smaller share of union membership in the city than in the nation, at 1.7% versus 9.9%.

Within the city, union density was highest among residents of Staten Island, at 34%, and lowest among residents of Manhattan, at 15%. It was also most prevalent among workers aged 55 and older. Some 33% of those older workers belonged to unions, versus 28% of workers 25 to 54 and just 10% of workers 16 to 24.

The study suggested that the higher rates of unionization among older workers reflects the limited extent of union organizing among new entrants to the workforce.

Looking at unionization rates among immigrants, it found that recent immigrants have low rates. Some 11% of immigrants who arrived between 2000 and 2010 are in unions, compared with 33% of those who arrived before 1980.

By Daniel Massey
Crain's New York Business