Did Union Membership Help Workers Escape Layoffs?

One of the supposed benefits of unionization is better job security. A strong union can use its leverage to try to force management to keep workers instead of conducting layoffs. Through some new data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can test this theory. It shows that job security might not actually be a significant benefit of unionization.

Unions Are Losing Influence

Before getting into that analysis, how is union membership changing? The BLS report shows that it continued to decline last year, as just 11.9% of workers were union members. That's the lowest portion since the government began keeping track in 2000. Here's a chart showing the change:

union membership full 2010.png

The vertical axis above begins at zero to show the big picture, but if you zoom in on the change over the past decade, here's how it looks:

union membership zoon 2010.png

In fact, 2010's portion was only slightly lower than the union members' portion of the workforce in 2000. But other than the period of 2007 through 2008, this trend appears to be heading steadily downward over the decade.

Industry Changes

It's also interesting to see how union membership has varied by industry sector. Here's a chart showing the major industry groups with union membership making up more than 5% of their workforces:

union sectors 2010.png

This chart is a little busy due to all the data it contains. But you can hopefully see that union member has only grown within "Education and Health services" (gold line) since 2000. Its portion of unionized workers grew only slightly, from 7.9% to 8.1%. This is entirely driven by education. Its portion of union workers has grown from 11.5% to 13.0% over this ten-year period. The biggest decline over this time span was in construction, which saw its union membership portion decline from 17.5% to 13.1%, a decline of 4.4%. Manufacturing and transportation had similar declines, of 4.2% each.

What Job Security?

Of course, construction and manufacturing were two of the industries hardest hit by the recent recession, with each losing millions of jobs in just two years. Have union workers had an advantage at keeping their jobs? It's hard to say for sure, but the data provides a way to estimate this by looking at how employment of has changed for union members and non-union members within these sectors.

From 2007 to 2010, non-union workers have declined by 28% and 13% for construction and manufacturing, respectively. Meanwhile union workers have declined by 33% and 18%, for construction and manufacturing, respectively. In other words, management actually appears to have laid off union workers even more aggressively than non-union workers since the recession began. This relationship also holds for all workers, as non-union member employment declined by 4.2% while union member employment fell by 6.1%.

It's hard to know for sure what caused this result, as in theory, union workers should have more power to protect their jobs than non-union workers. One possibility is that union members' wages and benefits were greater than those of non-union members, so managers realized they could better cut costs by eliminating union members.

It should be noted, however, that this data isn't precisely conclusive, as some union members could have left their unions over this period but maintained employment. That would skew the numbers, though it's hard to say why this would be the case. The numbers also fail to take into account experience level. If layoffs were focused on certain levels of experience, then this could also matter if union members were more heavily concentrated in those populations.

Age Groups

The BLS report also provides data on the union members of various age groups of workers. Here's a chart showing how they have changed:

union age groups 2010.png

One big takeaway from this chart is how much union membership has grown for workers over 65 years of age. This could imply that union workers have been waiting longer to retire than they had in the past. Most other age groups have seen fairly significant declines in union members' portion of the workforce.


From this report, it's looks like unions' influence is waning. This is shown by the numbers alone, but also by considering that union membership doesn't appear to have helped prevent layoffs. As jobs come back, it will be interesting to see if union membership grows, or if it continues to shrink. This probably depends in part on the industries where the jobs materialize, as it's very clear that unionization is much stronger in some sectors than others.

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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