New Orleans The top-line numbers from the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership density in the United States for 2015 indicate little change, sort of a “no news is good news” kind of story. Private sector density continued to suck at 6.7% of all private employment, but that was a slight improvement over an even worse figure in 2014. Public sector density was over one-third of all public workers at 35.2%. Membership was slightly higher in absolute terms in the private sector with both over 7 million workers, and the total union membership was almost 15 million members, which isn’t what any of us would want, but is still something to work with. Half-empty or half-full, that’s where we stand.
A closer look at the numbers continues to be disheartening. The states beating the averages are still bi-coastal with some hunkering down in the Midwest with the south east and south central states all below the median numbers with many of them at the bottom of the barrel. Five states had total union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2015: South Carolina (2.1 percent), North Carolina (3.0 percent), Utah (3.9 percent), Georgia (4.0 percent), and Texas (4.5 percent). Arkansas and Louisiana for example were both in the 6% range for total union membership density. Nationally the rate is over 11%. None of that is encouraging.
Union workers continue to make considerably more than non-union workers, but that does not seem to drive robust recruitment. The BLS figures have non-union workers making about 79% of union rates.
Adding to their list of challenges, part-time workers are still stepchildren in the labor movement. The union membership rate was 12.2 percent for full-time workers, more than twice the rate for part-time workers at 5.9 percent. Such workers are being gigged hard.
If you are looking for opportunity and challenges there are some sectors that are literally crying for unions. Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.2 percent) of course, finance (1.3 percent) which is also hardly a surprise either, food services and drinking places (1.5 percent) despite the extensive fight for $15 effort, and professional and technical services (1.7 percent) where Silicon Valley types, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs all get a free ride. Leisure and hospitality in general went down to 3.6% which really hurts since there are more than 12 million workers in that sector. Healthcare and social services, where there are 17 million employed, almost held its own at 8.3% which is close to 1 of every 12 private sector workers in are union members. Retail and wholesale trade where there are more than 18 million workers was even worse with barely over 5% in unions, so there’s a lot of opportunity there at least on paper.
Commentators pointed out the obvious on this year’s numbers, though that didn’t make it less painful to hear as they moaned that time – and money – were running out. Loss of union shop protections for public sector workers could drain the coffers of many unions and decimate organizing resources. As the Service Employees have demonstrated, campaigns like the McDonalds and Fight for $15 effort where they have spent millions for years without the realization of any membership gain, require huge capital being spent now hoping to find the interest later. Few unions are willing to do that, and the 2015 numbers indicate that even fewer every year may be able.
We still have a finger hold, but we’re hanging by a hair and dangling over a cliff. Don’t look down!