Changing employment patterns of organized workers Essay

The organized labor movement lost 2.7 million members among employedwage and salary workers between 1980 and 1984. This was a particularlysharp drop in the number of union members compared with the experiencebetween the end of World War II and 1980, a period of generally risingunion membership. Because this decline took place while thenation’s workforce grew, the proportion of employed wage and salaryworkers who were union members declined during the period, continuing atrend that began in the late 1950’s. The change in the number and proportion of union members took placewhile changes in the American economy were having a paricularly severeimpact on employment in goods-producing industries and intransportation, where many union members worked.

Competition fromimports was growing and government deregulation of the transportationindustry in 1980 increased competition from nonunion firms. The”smokestack” industries, the traditional source of unionstrength, were stagnant or declining, while the less-organizedservice-producing industries had vigorous employment gains. During theRecession of 1981-1982, unemployment hit hardest in industries whereunions were strong but, to date, the recovery has been most vigorous inindustries and occupations the typically have low levels ofunionization. This article discusses the employment of organized workers in May1980 with averages for the year ended in September 1984, the second yearof the recovery from the 1981-82 recession. Data on employment wereobtained primarily from the Current Population Survey (CPS), conductedby the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Satistics. In May 1980, theCPS collected data on workers identified by their membership in unionsor by their representation at work by a union, whether or not they weremembers. These data were next collected in January 1983 and have beencollected each month since then. It should be noted that the CPS union membership data cover onlyemployed wage and salary workers, not union members who areself-employed, unemployed, retired, laid off, or for other reasons arenot wage and salary employees.

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Thus, they do not represent the totalnumber of people who belong to unions and employee associations. Thelast BLS study that counted total union membership (regardless ofemployment status) was in 1980. That study recorded union (and employeeassociation) membership at 22,337,000. This was 2,282,000 or 11 percentmore than the 20,095,000 employed wage and salary workers who were unionmembers recorded by the May 1980 CPS.

Because BLS no longer collectsdata on total union membership, a similar comparison of membershiptrends cannot be made for 1984. The CPS data indicate that the number of employed wage and salaryworkers belonging to labor unions fell from 20.1 million in 1980 to 17.4million in 1984–a loss of 2.7 million. During the same time the totalnumber of employed wage and salary workers increased from 87.5 millionto 91.

3 million–a gain of 3.8 million. As a result, union members as aproportion of all employees feel from 23.0 percent in 1980 to 19.1percent in 1984.

Between May 1977 and May 1980, union membership among employed wageand salary workers increased by about three-quarters of a million, from19.3 to 20.1 million. The proportion of employees who were unionmembers, however, fell from 23.8 to 23.0 percent, a consequence of thegrowth of wage and salary empleyment outpacing the increase in unionmembership.

There are no comparable CPS data for earlier years. However, aspreviously noted, the BLS “Directory of National Unions andEmployee Association” is another source of data on labororganization membership. Unlike the CPS, the Directory countedmembership in labor organizations (unions only, prior to 1968)regardless of employment status. The data are, nevertheless, usefull inproviding a historical backdrop. They show that during the post-WorldWar II era through 1980, union membership (excluding employeeassociations) fluctuated from year to year but grew on balance. Itstood at 14.3 million in 1945, peaked at 20.

2 million in 1978, and thendeclined to 19.8 million in 1980. During the period, the largestdecline in membership was 1.2 million between 1956 and 1961. Unions and employee associations combined showed a similar patternof membership change between 1968 and 1980, the period for which suchdata are available. From 1968 to 1978, membership in both types oforganizations rose from 20.7 million to 22.

9 million, but then fell to22.4 million in 1980. During the 1945-1980 period, the number of employed wage and salaryworkers increased faster than membership in unions (excluding employeeassociations). Consequently the proportion of workers in unions fellfrom 35.5 percent in 1945 to 21.9 percent in 1980. When employeesassociations are combined with unions, the declines were from 30.

5percent in 1968 to 24.7 percent in 1980. Against this background, the1980-84 declines in the number and proportion of union members amongemployed wage and salary workers indicated by the CPS data appearparticularly steep despite definitional differences between the CPS andthe Directory of National Unions and Employee Associations. The sharp reversal in the upward trend in the absolute number ofunion members in the work force and the accelerated declined in theproportion of union members in the work force between 1980 and 1984 stemfrom different employment patterns in the two major sectors–goods andservices–of private industry. Historically the main source of unionmembers, nonagricultural goods-producing industries (mining,construction, and manufacturing) suffered a net employment decline of800,000 workers over the period. However, in these industries, jobsheld by union members fell 1.9 million while jobs held by nonmembersrose 1.1 million.

By contrast, in service-producing industries, whichhistorically have had a comparatively low proportion of union members(with the exception of the transporation, communications, and utilitiesindustries), employment increased by 5 million. However, unionmembership among the service industries’ work force fell by700,000. In goods-producing industries, both the recession and importcompetition (especially in stell, automobiles, and apparel and textiles)had a sharp effect on employment during 1980-84. Firms facing decliningmarkets, or market shares, tried to recoup by reducing labor costs byseveral means. Among those that particularly affected employment ofunion member workers were greater use of nonunion facilites, contractingout work previously performed by union members, and purchasing suppliespreviously produced in-house by union members from nonunion domesticsources or foreign suppliers. Furthermore, nonunion competition foravailable work intensified, and it seems likely that some jobs lostduring the 1981-82 recession were regained by nonunion firms during thesubsequent recovery. Within the goods-producing sector, the mining industry suffered thelargest proportional loss of working union members, 43 percent, as thenumber of mining employees belonging to unions fell from 285,000 to162,000 between 1980 and 1984. Because total employment in the miningindustry was about the same in 1984 (903,000) as in 1980 (891,000), theproportion of union members decreased from 32.

0 percent to 17.9 percent. The other principal components of the nonfarm goods-producingsector, construction and manufacturing, also had declines in the numberof union member workers and proportional union membership. By 1984,employment in the construction industry had returned to its 1980prerecession level of approximately 4.4 million. The number ofconstruction industry jobs held by union members, however, stood at 1.1million in 1984, down from 1.4 million in 1980; thus, 24.

3 percent oftotal employment in the industry in 1984 compared with 30.9 percent in1980 were union members. As construction slowed during the 1981-82recession, competition between union and nonunion contractors foravailable 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 notunionized.

In a tight market, nonunion companies sometimes could bemore competitive than union firms when bidding on or performing onprojects. They could, for example, pay less than union scale, and bemore flexible in work practices because they were not governed by unionwork rules or staffing requirements. In the manufacturing industries, employment in 1984 was just over20 million, 800,000 below the 1980 level. The number of employed unionmembers in manufacturing, however, declined by about 1.

4 million,resulting in the proportion of union members in manufacturing fallingfrom 32.3 percent in 1980 to 26.5 percent in 1984. Changes in employment and union membership varied somewhat amongcomponent manufacturing industries, however. Employment in the durablegoods industries decreased approximately 500,000 between 1980 and 1984.However, the number of employed union members in these industries fellby almost 1 million. The primary and fabricated metals industries andthe nonelectrical machinery industry accounted for most of the declinein employed union members.

These industries have not fully recoveredfrom the 1981-82 recession, and have been subject to intense importcompetition. Two other durable goods industries adversely affected bythe recession and imports–stone, clay, and glass products andelectrical machinery–had employed union member decreases ofapproximately 100,000 each. The nondurable goods industries had a decline of about 300,000 jobsand lost over 400,000 employed union members. As a result, in thoseindustries, the proportion of union members fell from 28.5 percent in1980 to 24.2 percent in 1984. Among the nondurable manufacturers, thechemical industry had the largest decreases in the number of employedunion members–109,000–and a decline from 25.

8 to 18.3 percent in theirproportion of total employment. The textiles and apparel industrieslost approximately 150,000 jobs between 1980 and 1984. The number ofemployed union members in these industries decreased by more than 90,000during the same period. Consequently, the proportion of union membersfell 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 bysubstantial and continuing increases in health care and businessservices employment and more modest, but steady, gains in finance,insurance, and real estate, the service sector had an employmentincrease of 5.0 million jobs. The transportation, communications, andpublic utilities and wholesale and retail trade industries experiencedemployment losses during the 1981-82 recession, but these were more thanoffset by gains during the subsequent recovery. Despite the overall rise in employment in the service sector, thenumber of employed union members fell by more than 700,000. About halfthe loss was in the transportation industry.

The deregulation oftrucking and airlines brought intense competition between union andnonunion firms in these industries. In Federal, State, and local government, employment declined byabout 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 by100,000 to about 5.7 million. The proportion of union members,therefore, held steady at 35.9 percent. A detailed discussion ofemployed union members working for government over the 1980-84 period isnot possible because 1980 data were not tabulated by level ofgovernment.

Employed union members in 1984 The industrial and occupational distribution of employed unionworkers that existed in 1984 is the result of long-term trends as wellas recent changes in employment and union membership. Five out of sixunion members worked in the goods-producing industries, the governmentsector, and transportation, communications, and public utilities in theservice-producing industries. By comparison, just I out of 2 of allwage and salary workers were employed in these industry groupings.Union members accounted for 30.0 percent of the workers in theseindustries, but only 7.0 percent of the workers in other industries:wholesale and retail trade; finance, insurance, and real estate; andservices. The distribution of employed union members by occupation, sex, andrace is influenced by many factors.

In general, however, workers inoccupations typically found in construction, mining, manufacturing, andtransportation are more likely to be union members than those infinance, trade, or service jobs; employed men are more likely thanemployed women to be union members, and employed blacks are more likelyto be union members than employed whites. In private industry, transportation, communications, and utilitieshad the highest proportion of union members–two-fifths of thedivision’s employment. Manufacturing and construction, each withabout 1 out of 4 of its employees as union members, ranked second andthird, respectively, in proportion of union members. Mining had about 1out of 5 employees in unions, and was fourth.

Trade, services, andfinance, insurance, and real estate each had fewer than 1 out of 10employees in unions. Manufacturing employed 45 percent of union members who worked inprivate industry: transportation, communications, and utilitiesaccounted for 18 percent. Despite the comparatively small proportionsof workers in trade and services who were union members, those twoindustry divisions, because they employed large numbers of workersrelative to other industries, together accounted for 1 out of 4 unionmember employees in private industry. In contrast, construction had oneof the higher proportions union membership but because of its relativelysmall size, only about one-tenth of union members in private industry. Occupation, sex, and race By occupation. In private industry, two of the five majoroccupational groups were relatively heavily unionized. About a third ofthe operators, fabricators, and laborers, and nearly three-tenths of theprecision production, craft, and repair workers were union members.

These two occupations were also among the most highly organized on anindustry division basis as well, although the proportions varied.Overall, less than a tenth of the workers in any of the otheroccupational groups were union members. There were, however, sharpdifferences among the industry divisions in union membership byoccupation. For example, in transportation, communications, andutilities, more than one-third of the employees in every occupationalgroup except managerial and professional workers were union members, andnearly three-fifths of the precision production, craft, and repairworkers were union members. On the other hand, in services, fewer thanone-eighth in any of the occupations were union members. Compared with private industry, government had little variation inunionization by occupation. The proportion of union members ranged from36 to 40 percent among four of the five occupational groups.

Theexception was the technical, sales, and administrative group with 30percent union members. Overall, in government, 35.9 percent of theemployees were union members. Two occupations–teachers (except collegeand university) and protective service workers–accounted for adisproportionate share of union membership in government. While makingup 23.3 percent of government employment they constituted 38.3 percentof union members. By sex.

A greater proportion of men than of women employees weremembers of unions, 23.3 percent compared to 14.0 percent. The greaterdegree of union membership among men than women occurred in almost everyoccupation/industry cross classification, and in both the public andprivate sectors.

The only noticeable exception was the managerial andprofessional specialty group in government where women in these jobs hada union membership rate of 41.6 percent, compared to 33.9 percent formen. The comparatively high rate of unionization among women in theseoccupations 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 beunion members.

This was true in virtually every industrial occupationalgrouping. The proportion of blacks in the private sector belonging tounions was 22.2 percent while 39.0 percent of their counterparts ingovernment were union members. Among white workers, 14.8 percent inprivate industry and 35.6 percent in government were union members.


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