Union Membership Down; Experts Say HR’s Responsiveness May Be a Reason

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 10, 2017

​The percentage of U.S. workers who were union members fell 0.4 percent to 10.7 percent in 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported Jan. 26. Some labor relations experts say that part of the reason for a decline in union membership can be due to HR, as the nation's unions have a harder time convincing workers to join when HR and other business leaders are responsive to employees' concerns.

Public-sector workers had a union membership rate of 34.4 percent, more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers at 6.4 percent. Teachers, police officers and firefighters had the highest unionization rates. In the private sector, industries with high unionization rates included utilities (21.5 percent), transportation and warehousing (18.4 percent), telecommunications (14.6 percent), construction (13.9 percent), and educational services (12.3 percent). Private educational services include private colleges and universities.

The number of workers in total who belonged to unions was 14.6 million in 2016, declining by 240,000 from 2015, according to the BLS.

Reasons for the Drop

"Business leaders, now more than ever, get it when it comes to positive employee relations," said Jim Gray of Jim Gray Consultants, a labor relations consultancy, in Charleston, S.C. "Accelerated employee engagement and personal development efforts—especially attractive to younger generations—are making union representation unnecessary."

In addition, unionized companies aren't very competitive, said Phillip Wilson, president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla. He said that unions are slow to change, "which is one of the problems with the collective bargaining process. When a company is slow to adapt to changing market conditions—especially in today's economy—that company is dead." 

But David Madland, senior advisor to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington, D.C., said in a press release, "Now more than ever, workers need a real say in the economy and in politics. Even though the majority of Americans support labor unions, attacks by right-wing politicians have hurt the only real voice that workers control. Union membership, which has been on the decline for years as a result of these tactics, dropped even further this past year."

Kate Bronfenbrenner, senior lecturer and director of labor education research at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y., attributed the drop in union membership partly to the 2016 presidential election. "Unions always lose members in presidential election years," she said. "Every four years it happens because resources and staff are transferred away from organizing to primary campaigns."

Changes in the law have also had a big effect on union membership, according to Bronfenbrenner. "I believe the biggest drop comes from the loss of collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers and loss of members in states that had major changes in collective bargaining legislation, such as Wisconsin," she said. And after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Harris v. Quinn, which held that home care workers who don't support a union can't be forced to pay a fee to the union, the Service Employees International Union lost large numbers of home care workers, she added.

Employers use threats of outsourcing to win concessions from unions. Then after they get the concessions, some employers cut "all or part of the jobs anyway," she said.

Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler and co-chair of the firm's government affairs division, the Workplace Policy Institute, said that a decline in union membership has been happening since 1955. He said that when the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935, "the way employers treated employees was vastly different than they do today. Now, the vast majority of employers treat their employees with dignity and respect, and provide for open dialogue and complaint resolution systems, competitive pay and benefits, and a workplace that outlaws discrimination and harassment. Many government agencies, local and state and federal, provide employees with workplace protections without dues obligations. Given all of these changes that value workers, unions have had difficulty articulating a value proposition." 

Said Wilson: "Despite all of the negative PR [public relations] unions like to heap on U.S. businesses, the fact is that most working people do not believe they are mistreated or need the protection of a union."

Higher Pay

One argument for organized labor has been that unionized workers are often paid more than employees who are not unionized.

As the BLS stated in its press release on the union membership decline, among full-time hourly and salaried workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $1,004 in 2016, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $802.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Unfair Labor Practices: Can an employer in a nonunion facility prohibit employees from discussing their salaries?]

However, this earnings difference reflects a variety of influences, including variations in the distributions of union members and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, age, firm size and geographic region, the BLS said.

Many union members live in states that have cities with high costs of living, the BLS statistics show. For example, the largest numbers of union members live in California (2.6 million) and New York (1.9 million).

Over half of the 14.6 million union members in the U.S. live in just seven states. In addition to California and New York, that includes:

  • Illinois: 800,000.
  • Pennsylvania: 700,000.
  • Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio: each at 600,000.

Granted, not all areas of these states have high costs of living.

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