Some Industries See an Increase in Unionization

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 7, 2020

​Union membership overall in 2019 was stagnant, but labor had gains in some industries, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show.

While the percentage of workers in unions was down by 0.2 percentage points to 10.3 percent in 2019, the number of workers belonging to unions held steady at 14.6 million.

The union membership rate of public-sector workers—33.6 percent—continued to be significantly higher than that of private-sector workers, which is at 6.2 percent.

Industries with Increased Unionization

"Based on the BLS report, utilities saw a nearly 4 percent increase in the rate of employees represented by unions," said David Pryzbylski, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. Unionization rates climbed in transportation and warehousing as well, and he predicted that this trend will continue as online shopping and e-commerce expand.

Mark Kisicki, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Phoenix, noted that private-sector industries with the greatest increases in unionization in 2019 included radio and television broadcasting, cable subscription programming, and motion picture production and sound recording. Other industries that saw increases in union membership, though to a lesser extent, were arts, entertainment and recreation, he said.

"We are seeing a lot of [union] activity with our health care, service industry and logistics clients," said Phillip Wilson, president and general counsel with the Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla. "These sectors are growing rapidly, experiencing a lot of change and disruption, and are less able to avoid geographies with active union organizing. This is a trend I would expect to continue for the foreseeable future."

Sommer Wiss, an attorney with Foley & Lardner in Boston, said there has been an increase in unionization in education. Watch for unionization to spread into growing industries, such as the technology sector, she said.

Molly Kaban, an attorney with Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco, said unions had gains in state government. But she noted there were losses in numerous other industries.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Preparing for the Possibility of Union Organizing]

No Big Dip in Public-Sector Unionization

The number of unionized public-sector employees dipped slightly but didn't drop as sharply as some had expected following the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling in Janus. In that case, the Supreme Court banned mandatory union fees in the public sector.

While the member numbers of state government unions rose, federal government and local government union workers' membership dropped slightly.

The number of state government employees belonging to unions rose to 2,043,000 from 2,035,000, while federal government union members dropped to 974,000 from 977,000. The number of local government union members fell to 4,050,000 from 4,155,000.

"I see two principle reasons Janus has not had more of a negative impact on union membership," Kisicki said.

First, public-sector unions have negotiated generous total compensation packages.

Second, unions are making it difficult for union members to quit. Most of these unions have established limited time frames for members to withdraw, such as a specific 30-day period each year, he noted.

"There are dozens of cases around the country that challenge such tactics," Kisicki said. "Eventually, the courts will restrain such union tactics, but that will take a number of years."

Kaban predicted, "I expect Janus to have a greater impact over time. As new workers enter the job force who have not been in unions before, they will be more likely to opt out of paying dues."

Unions Are Concentrated in Seven States

Seven states account for more than half of all union members in the U.S.: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington.

In addition to being heavily populated, these states have a history of unionization and are popular locations for industries that have been traditionally unionized, said Michael Wietrzychowski, an attorney with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Pryzbylski said that "the lack of right-to-work laws in each of these seven states undoubtedly contributes to higher union membership rates." In states without such legislation, employers and unions can agree to require workers in a bargaining unit to either join the union or pay certain fees within a specified time after their start date.

Entrenched Unions

Kisicki said the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) "has made it virtually impossible for employees to remove a union once it has been certified as the representative of a group of employees."

Only a small percentage of all employees represented by unions have ever had the chance to vote on whether they wanted to be represented by unions, he added.

"The vast majority have become union members because they got jobs in workforces that were already unionized," Kisicki said. "Because of the NLRB's rules, companies whose workforces became unionized 50, 60 or 70 years ago have witnessed multiple generations of workers come and go without any of them having had an opportunity to vote on whether they wanted union representation."



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