Changing employment patterns of organized workers Essay

The organized labor movement lost 2.7 million members among employed
wage and salary workers between 1980 and 1984. This was a particularly
sharp drop in the number of union members compared with the experience
between the end of World War II and 1980, a period of generally rising
union membership. Because this decline took place while the
nation’s workforce grew, the proportion of employed wage and salary
workers who were union members declined during the period, continuing a
trend that began in the late 1950’s.

The change in the number and proportion of union members took place
while changes in the American economy were having a paricularly severe
impact on employment in goods-producing industries and in
transportation, where many union members worked. Competition from
imports was growing and government deregulation of the transportation
industry in 1980 increased competition from nonunion firms. The
“smokestack” industries, the traditional source of union
strength, were stagnant or declining, while the less-organized
service-producing industries had vigorous employment gains. During the
Recession of 1981-1982, unemployment hit hardest in industries where
unions were strong but, to date, the recovery has been most vigorous in
industries and occupations the typically have low levels of

This article discusses the employment of organized workers in May
1980 with averages for the year ended in September 1984, the second year
of the recovery from the 1981-82 recession. Data on employment were
obtained primarily from the Current Population Survey (CPS), conducted
by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Satistics. In May 1980, the
CPS collected data on workers identified by their membership in unions
or by their representation at work by a union, whether or not they were
members. These data were next collected in January 1983 and have been
collected each month since then.

It should be noted that the CPS union membership data cover only
employed wage and salary workers, not union members who are
self-employed, unemployed, retired, laid off, or for other reasons are
not wage and salary employees. Thus, they do not represent the total
number of people who belong to unions and employee associations. The
last BLS study that counted total union membership (regardless of
employment status) was in 1980. That study recorded union (and employee
association) membership at 22,337,000. This was 2,282,000 or 11 percent
more than the 20,095,000 employed wage and salary workers who were union
members recorded by the May 1980 CPS. Because BLS no longer collects
data on total union membership, a similar comparison of membership
trends cannot be made for 1984.

The CPS data indicate that the number of employed wage and salary
workers belonging to labor unions fell from 20.1 million in 1980 to 17.4
million in 1984–a loss of 2.7 million. During the same time the total
number of employed wage and salary workers increased from 87.5 million
to 91.3 million–a gain of 3.8 million. As a result, union members as a
proportion of all employees feel from 23.0 percent in 1980 to 19.1
percent in 1984.

Between May 1977 and May 1980, union membership among employed wage
and salary workers increased by about three-quarters of a million, from
19.3 to 20.1 million. The proportion of employees who were union
members, however, fell from 23.8 to 23.0 percent, a consequence of the
growth of wage and salary empleyment outpacing the increase in union

There are no comparable CPS data for earlier years. However, as
previously noted, the BLS “Directory of National Unions and
Employee Association” is another source of data on labor
organization membership. Unlike the CPS, the Directory counted
membership in labor organizations (unions only, prior to 1968)
regardless of employment status. The data are, nevertheless, usefull in
providing a historical backdrop. They show that during the post-World
War II era through 1980, union membership (excluding employee
associations) fluctuated from year to year but grew on balance. It
stood at 14.3 million in 1945, peaked at 20.2 million in 1978, and then
declined to 19.8 million in 1980. During the period, the largest
decline in membership was 1.2 million between 1956 and 1961.

Unions and employee associations combined showed a similar pattern
of membership change between 1968 and 1980, the period for which such
data are available. From 1968 to 1978, membership in both types of
organizations rose from 20.7 million to 22.9 million, but then fell to
22.4 million in 1980.

During the 1945-1980 period, the number of employed wage and salary
workers increased faster than membership in unions (excluding employee
associations). Consequently the proportion of workers in unions fell
from 35.5 percent in 1945 to 21.9 percent in 1980. When employees
associations are combined with unions, the declines were from 30.5
percent in 1968 to 24.7 percent in 1980. Against this background, the
1980-84 declines in the number and proportion of union members among
employed wage and salary workers indicated by the CPS data appear
particularly steep despite definitional differences between the CPS and
the Directory of National Unions and Employee Associations.

The sharp reversal in the upward trend in the absolute number of
union members in the work force and the accelerated declined in the
proportion of union members in the work force between 1980 and 1984 stem
from different employment patterns in the two major sectors–goods and
services–of private industry. Historically the main source of union
members, nonagricultural goods-producing industries (mining,
construction, and manufacturing) suffered a net employment decline of
800,000 workers over the period. However, in these industries, jobs
held by union members fell 1.9 million while jobs held by nonmembers
rose 1.1 million. By contrast, in service-producing industries, which
historically have had a comparatively low proportion of union members
(with the exception of the transporation, communications, and utilities
industries), employment increased by 5 million. However, union
membership among the service industries’ work force fell by

In goods-producing industries, both the recession and import
competition (especially in stell, automobiles, and apparel and textiles)
had a sharp effect on employment during 1980-84. Firms facing declining
markets, or market shares, tried to recoup by reducing labor costs by
several means. Among those that particularly affected employment of
union member workers were greater use of nonunion facilites, contracting
out work previously performed by union members, and purchasing supplies
previously produced in-house by union members from nonunion domestic
sources or foreign suppliers. Furthermore, nonunion competition for
available work intensified, and it seems likely that some jobs lost
during the 1981-82 recession were regained by nonunion firms during the
subsequent recovery.

Within the goods-producing sector, the mining industry suffered the
largest proportional loss of working union members, 43 percent, as the
number of mining employees belonging to unions fell from 285,000 to
162,000 between 1980 and 1984. Because total employment in the mining
industry was about the same in 1984 (903,000) as in 1980 (891,000), the
proportion of union members decreased from 32.0 percent to 17.9 percent.

The other principal components of the nonfarm goods-producing
sector, construction and manufacturing, also had declines in the number
of union member workers and proportional union membership. By 1984,
employment in the construction industry had returned to its 1980
prerecession level of approximately 4.4 million. The number of
construction industry jobs held by union members, however, stood at 1.1
million in 1984, down from 1.4 million in 1980; thus, 24.3 percent of
total employment in the industry in 1984 compared with 30.9 percent in
1980 were union members. As construction slowed during the 1981-82
recession, competition between union and nonunion contractors for
available work intensified, with many nonunion contractors bidding for,
and receiving, work historically performed by union contractors.
Indeed, some unionized firms created separate companies that were not
unionized. In a tight market, nonunion companies sometimes could be
more competitive than union firms when bidding on or performing on
projects. They could, for example, pay less than union scale, and be
more flexible in work practices because they were not governed by union
work rules or staffing requirements.

In the manufacturing industries, employment in 1984 was just over
20 million, 800,000 below the 1980 level. The number of employed union
members in manufacturing, however, declined by about 1.4 million,
resulting in the proportion of union members in manufacturing falling
from 32.3 percent in 1980 to 26.5 percent in 1984.

Changes in employment and union membership varied somewhat among
component manufacturing industries, however. Employment in the durable
goods industries decreased approximately 500,000 between 1980 and 1984.
However, the number of employed union members in these industries fell
by almost 1 million. The primary and fabricated metals industries and
the nonelectrical machinery industry accounted for most of the decline
in employed union members. These industries have not fully recovered
from the 1981-82 recession, and have been subject to intense import
competition. Two other durable goods industries adversely affected by
the recession and imports–stone, clay, and glass products and
electrical machinery–had employed union member decreases of
approximately 100,000 each.

The nondurable goods industries had a decline of about 300,000 jobs
and lost over 400,000 employed union members. As a result, in those
industries, the proportion of union members fell from 28.5 percent in
1980 to 24.2 percent in 1984. Among the nondurable manufacturers, the
chemical industry had the largest decreases in the number of employed
union members–109,000–and a decline from 25.8 to 18.3 percent in their
proportion of total employment. The textiles and apparel industries
lost approximately 150,000 jobs between 1980 and 1984. The number of
employed union members in these industries decreased by more than 90,000
during the same period. Consequently, the proportion of union members
fell from 21.3 to 18.2 percent of total employment.

The service-producing sector, unlike goods-producing industries,
had strong employment gains between 1980 and 1984. Bolstered by
substantial and continuing increases in health care and business
services employment and more modest, but steady, gains in finance,
insurance, and real estate, the service sector had an employment
increase of 5.0 million jobs. The transportation, communications, and
public utilities and wholesale and retail trade industries experienced
employment losses during the 1981-82 recession, but these were more than
offset by gains during the subsequent recovery.

Despite the overall rise in employment in the service sector, the
number of employed union members fell by more than 700,000. About half
the loss was in the transportation industry. The deregulation of
trucking and airlines brought intense competition between union and
nonunion firms in these industries.

In Federal, State, and local government, employment declined by
about 300,000, from 16,056,000 workers in 1980 to 15,748,000 in 1984.
The number of government employees who were union members declined by
100,000 to about 5.7 million. The proportion of union members,
therefore, held steady at 35.9 percent. A detailed discussion of
employed union members working for government over the 1980-84 period is
not possible because 1980 data were not tabulated by level of

Employed union members in 1984

The industrial and occupational distribution of employed union
workers that existed in 1984 is the result of long-term trends as well
as recent changes in employment and union membership. Five out of six
union members worked in the goods-producing industries, the government
sector, and transportation, communications, and public utilities in the
service-producing industries. By comparison, just I out of 2 of all
wage and salary workers were employed in these industry groupings.
Union members accounted for 30.0 percent of the workers in these
industries, but only 7.0 percent of the workers in other industries:
wholesale and retail trade; finance, insurance, and real estate; and

The distribution of employed union members by occupation, sex, and
race is influenced by many factors. In general, however, workers in
occupations typically found in construction, mining, manufacturing, and
transportation are more likely to be union members than those in
finance, trade, or service jobs; employed men are more likely than
employed women to be union members, and employed blacks are more likely
to be union members than employed whites.

In private industry, transportation, communications, and utilities
had the highest proportion of union members–two-fifths of the
division’s employment. Manufacturing and construction, each with
about 1 out of 4 of its employees as union members, ranked second and
third, respectively, in proportion of union members. Mining had about 1
out of 5 employees in unions, and was fourth. Trade, services, and
finance, insurance, and real estate each had fewer than 1 out of 10
employees in unions.

Manufacturing employed 45 percent of union members who worked in
private industry: transportation, communications, and utilities
accounted for 18 percent. Despite the comparatively small proportions
of workers in trade and services who were union members, those two
industry divisions, because they employed large numbers of workers
relative to other industries, together accounted for 1 out of 4 union
member employees in private industry. In contrast, construction had one
of the higher proportions union membership but because of its relatively
small size, only about one-tenth of union members in private industry.

Occupation, sex, and race

By occupation. In private industry, two of the five major
occupational groups were relatively heavily unionized. About a third of
the operators, fabricators, and laborers, and nearly three-tenths of the
precision production, craft, and repair workers were union members.
These two occupations were also among the most highly organized on an
industry division basis as well, although the proportions varied.
Overall, less than a tenth of the workers in any of the other
occupational groups were union members. There were, however, sharp
differences among the industry divisions in union membership by
occupation. For example, in transportation, communications, and
utilities, more than one-third of the employees in every occupational
group except managerial and professional workers were union members, and
nearly three-fifths of the precision production, craft, and repair
workers were union members. On the other hand, in services, fewer than
one-eighth in any of the occupations were union members.

Compared with private industry, government had little variation in
unionization by occupation. The proportion of union members ranged from
36 to 40 percent among four of the five occupational groups. The
exception was the technical, sales, and administrative group with 30
percent union members. Overall, in government, 35.9 percent of the
employees were union members. Two occupations–teachers (except college
and university) and protective service workers–accounted for a
disproportionate share of union membership in government. While making
up 23.3 percent of government employment they constituted 38.3 percent
of union members.

By sex. A greater proportion of men than of women employees were
members of unions, 23.3 percent compared to 14.0 percent. The greater
degree of union membership among men than women occurred in almost every
occupation/industry cross classification, and in both the public and
private sectors. The only noticeable exception was the managerial and
professional specialty group in government where women in these jobs had
a union membership rate of 41.6 percent, compared to 33.9 percent for
men. The comparatively high rate of unionization among women in these
occupations stems from the high proportion of women who were teachers,
and the high degree of unionization among teachers.

By race. Black workers were more likely than white workers to be
union members. This was true in virtually every industrial occupational
grouping. The proportion of blacks in the private sector belonging to
unions was 22.2 percent while 39.0 percent of their counterparts in
government were union members. Among white workers, 14.8 percent in
private industry and 35.6 percent in government were union members.


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