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NYC Still a Union Town – But Young Workers Lag Behind

September 3, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

A new report out from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies finds a dip in New York City union density.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Union density in New York dipped slightly in the past year, but the state remains the most unionized in the country, with rates more than twice the national average of 10.5%, according to a report released Sept. 2 by the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.

The report, The State of the Unions 2019: A Profile of Organized Labor in New York City, New York State, and the United States, found that 21.4% of workers in the city and 21.8% in the state were union members in 2018-19, according to data from U.S. Census Bureau population surveys. That was slightly less than the 24% recorded in 2013-16. In the private sector, 13.9% of workers in the city and 13.0% in the state were union members, compared with a national average of 6.4%. In the public sector, about two-thirds of workers were union members.

Wages, however, remained stagnant, the report said, largely because the biggest job growth came in low-wage fields. In New York City, the only industries that added more than 100,000 jobs between 2008 and 2018 were ambulatory health-care services and food services, restaurants, and bars. Private-sector workers’ average income actually declined by 1% during that period after being adjusted for inflation, while public-sector incomes rose by 28%.

“What we see here is emblematic of a national trend. The economy continues to grow, unemployment is at an all-time low, yet workers’ wages lag behind, even as health-care costs continue to skyrocket and inequality is rising,” report co-author Ruth Milkman, a CUNY sociology professor, said in a statement released by the School of Labor. “On average, more union than nonunion workers earn a living wage, so it is no surprise that declining private-sector union density has contributed to earnings erosion.” 

In the city, the report said, the percentage of union members earning a living wage (about $30 an hour for a family of four) was 28% higher than it was for nonmembers. The difference was most pronounced in the heavily unionized sectors of construction, transportation, education, social assistance, and in leisure and hospitality—where 30.2% of union members made a living wage, while only 12.6% of nonunion workers did. But nonunion members did better in retail and wholesale trade, finance, and health care, where, the report conjectured, there are often high-salary nonunion professional employees.

The Bronx and Brooklyn had the highest rates of private-sector unionization, at 24% and 23% respectively, likely due to health care and building services; SEIU 1199, with some 190,000 members, and Local 32BJ, with about 90,000, are by far the largest unions representing private-sector workers in the city. 

The largest numbers of union workers in the city are in health care and social assistance—23.2% of union members, twice the national average—and education, at 21.1%. Manufacturing, which accounts for 9.3% of union members nationally and 4.4% in the rest of New York State, includes less than 1% of union workers in the city.

Older workers are much more likely to be union members, the study found: 30% of workers 55 or older are members, compared with 21% of those aged 25-54, and probably less than 10% of those 16-24. 

“People’s desires to join a union don’t match that,” coauthor Stephanie Luce, chair of labor studies at the School of Labor, told LaborPress. Instead, it reflects that younger people more often work in high-turnover jobs and how hard it is to organize a union. Union jobs, she adds, tend to have fewer openings because they have much lower turnover.

The generational difference is most pronounced among immigrants, where those who arrived before 1990 are about 50% more likely than native-born workers or more recent immigrants to be union members. 

Some immigrant groups, however, are among the most unionized in the metropolitan area: More than 30% of workers born in Barbados, Ghana, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago are union members. Overall, Afro-Americans have the highest unionization rates nationally, statewide, and locally, largely because of their strong presence in public-sector and transportation jobs. Asian-Americans have the lowest rates, while Latino workers in the city are more likely to be union members than whites.

The decline in private-sector density, the report concludes, “is of serious concern,” because “in labor’s glory days, a strongly unionized private sector helped foster a social-democratic political culture in New York City,” and that culture is being undermined. “For the time being, however, New York’s unions continue to offer significant protection to a diverse population of workers in both the City and State, including middle-class teachers and other professionals, as well as a substantial segment of women, racial-ethnic minorities, and immigrants in both professional and nonprofessional jobs.”

“The labor movement must actively recruit new members into its ranks to maintain a strong economy and fair wages for all,” Luce said.

September 3, 2019

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