Union Membership in Today’s Workforce

Union Membership in 2019

Every year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on a variety of statistics concerning things like union membership rates, the demographic makeup of union members, and union versus non-union wages. The statistics offer a birds-eye view of the status of unions, but they don’t tell you the “what” of union membership. What are the implications for employers of union trends in membership rates? What is the current opinion of millennial workers concerning unionization? What social influences are reviving interest in unions? What strategies are unions expected to adopt, what is going to happen with union membership in 2020, and how do they give employers a clear path to maintaining a Union Proof business?

First the Statistics

Statistics are important to track, but reading between the lines reveals the most actionable information. As a review, some interesting statistics reported in the January 18, 2019 BLS news release include the following.

  • Among hourly and salaried workers, 10.5 percent belonged to unions in 2018, compared to 10.7 percent in 2016 and 2017
  • The total number of union members was 14.7 million in 2018 which is unchanged from 2017
  • 33.9 percent of public sector workers (7.2 million) and 6.4 percent of private sector workers (7.6 million) belong to unions
  • The median wage for union members was $1,051 compared to $860 for non-union members
  • The highest unionization rates were in protective service occupations (i.e. policemen, firemen, etc.) at 33.9 percent and in education, training, and library occupations at 33.8 percent
  • The lowest unionization rates were in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations at 2.4 percent; computer and mathematical occupations; and food preparation and serving related occupations at 3.9 percent
  • Union membership was highest among workers aged 45 to 64 years old

The union membership rate (union density) continued its decline, but at a much slower rate than during the last few years. The statistics are interesting, but even more interesting for employers is what they imply for staying union free.

Finding Guidance in the Statistics

Statistics are important for tracking events, like unionization rates, but they only serve as guideposts for employers. For example, they don’t tell you the perspectives of the younger employee generation concerning unions. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether millennials will save unions, but will they?

You can glean some information by looking closer at the historical data. In 2017, the total employed number for people who were 25 to 34 years old was 32.4 million, and 9.4 percent belonged to unions. In 2018, the total employed for the same age group was 33.2 million, and 9.3 percent were union members. In 2017, there were 17.001 million millennial union members, compared to 17.005 million in 2018. The total number of millennials represented by unions in 2017 was 18.85 million, compared to 18.87 million in 2018. There is very little difference year-over-year. The statistical conclusion is that millennials are not joining unions in fast growing numbers, as unions and pro-union people have been suggesting.

What the numbers don’t tell employers is that millennials are using social media to unofficially organize to put pressure on employers. Millennials are forming organizations that don’t take direction from a union but act like one. Gen Y are activists, just the kind of people that unions approach. Millennials want a voice in the workplace and in society, and unions are telling them they can help.

Another question still to be answered is the full impact of the mid-year 2018 Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision that ended the forced collection of agency fees. In 2017, 7.216 million or 34.4 percent of public sector employees were union members. In 2018, 33.9 percent were union members (7.167 million). This isn’t a substantial difference. Unions are already saying that public service workers are remaining loyal to AFSCME, and new memberships are increasing. Analysts say it’s too early to predict the end result because many employees are still uninformed.

There is no way to know at this point if many more public sector employees will end paying agency fees or if there will there be some kind of ripple effect in the private sector. The BLS tracks the number of people who are aren’t union members but are represented by a union or an employee association contract. Among federal, state and local government employees, the percent of non-union people represented by unions declined from 37.9 percent in 2017 to 37.2 percent in 2018 which was 83,000 people. Could these numbers influence employees in the private sector by convincing them unions aren’t necessary?

Anticipating Union Strategies for 2020

It does seem that union membership in 2020 is stabilizing, but time will tell. However, there is one fact you can accept with confidence. Unions desperately want to leverage any signs of stabilization and start a new upward trend. There are pointers in the statistics that tell you the likely strategies the unions will use in 2020 to grow their memberships.

One is the fact that the lowest rates of unionization by occupational groups were in sales, computer and mathematics, and food preparation and serving occupations. It’s a major reason the unions have already targeted employees like department store salespeople, tech employees, food workers and employees in a variety of services professions. The unions will undoubtedly continue this strategy because the unionization rates for these occupations remains very low, ranging from 3.3 to 3.9 percent. There is a lot of room for growth in union numbers.

Another clue as to future unionization efforts is that the membership rate for full-time employees is 11.6 percent or twice the part-time employee rate of 5.4 percent. The fact people have to pay union dues has always been an argument for not joining a union, but many food and service workers are part-time employees who are demanding more empowerment and higher wages. If unions target these employee categories, more part-time workers will join unions making union membership in 2020 rise.

The Fact of Money

Another fact that unions use as a selling point is the wage differences between union and non-union employees. Non-union workers earned 82 percent of what union members earned in 2018. Even after accounting for union dues, union employees earn more per week. That’s a fact that might effect union membership in 2020.

However, as the BLS points out, there are many factors accounting for wage rate differences that aren’t explained by simply looking at the gross wage numbers. For example, manufacturing jobs, typically blue-collar union jobs, have historically been some of the highest paying jobs. Baby boomers held these jobs, and their age group has the largest percent of union membership. As they continue retiring over the next 5-10 years, the gap between union and non-union wages will narrow.

The percent of employees in manufacturing who were union members was 9.1 percent in 2017 compared to 9 percent in 2018. At the same time, the number of high-paying tech jobs is exploding in all industry sectors, and tech jobs right now are mostly non-union right now. There are some indications that could begin to change, if employers don’t engage their tech employees and give them a voice. It could be the employees turn to traditional unionization or use a different approach to organizing. Have you considered your employees could join an industry-wide coalition instead of a traditional union to achieve goals?

Looking closer at the numbers, union membership weekly wage rates in the private sector rose from $971 to $989 from 2017 to 2018, a 1.85 percent increase. For non-union employees, weekly wages increased from $816 to $848, a 3.92 percent increase. In the public sector, union weekly wages were stagnant at $1,096 in 2017 and $1,094 in 2018. Non-union weekly wages in the public sector increased from $917 in 2017 to $936 in 2018. Yes, the union versus non-union wage differential exists, but economic dynamics are changing wage structures.

Changing Perspectives Concerning Union Membership in 2020

What is the current attitude towards unions? A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of Americans have a positive perspective concerning unions. However, 53 percent view businesses favorably. Fifty-one (51) percent believe the decline in union representation in the U.S. isn’t good for working people.

Read further though, and there is a definite political influence on attitudes, and that is perhaps one of the strongest indications that unions could begin to once again gain ground. Sixty-eight (68) percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents believe the reduction in union membership isn’t good. Realistically speaking, Democrats control of the House of Representatives again, are pro-union, and some younger Democrats are using the term “Democratic Socialist.” This political philosophy believes people should “look to unions to make a private business more accountable.” More winds of change blowing.

Another factor is age. Half of adults 30 years old or older believe union membership declines aren’t good, but 56 percent of people under 30 believe the same thing. In fact, 56 percent of everyone surveyed has a positive view of labor unions. The point is that the winds of change could easily shift towards unions. It’s important to not get complacent when looking at the statistics that seem to indicate union representation remained low in 2018. Unions are determined to thrive once again.

The Center for American Progress has called for national wage boards that are bargaining panels, consisting of employers, workers, and the government. Workers could be represented by unions. The real point is that unions and their supporters are busy looking for ways to maintain their influence, one way or another. You may be keeping a union out of your business today, or a worker association out tomorrow. Either way, you must be prepared, and preparation in either situation is similar. As an employer, you must continually engage your employees, communicate the business perspective on unionization (or organizing), train your managers and supervisors to be effective leaders, and be prepared to respond quickly and legally to union organizing.

The statistics make it clear: Unions are here to stay.

LaborWise Leadership
About the author

Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.