Some Facts about American Unions

The Bureau of Labor Statistics published annual report on union membership, \”UNION MEMBERS — 2011,\” in late January.  Here are some facts about American unions in 2011, along with some historical perspective and international comparisons. I\’ll also mention some of the general lessons I see in these patterns:

First, some highlights from the BLS report (references to the detailed data tables omitted here):

\”In 2011, the union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union—was 11.8 percent, essentially unchanged from 11.9 percent in 2010 …

\”In 2011, 7.6 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.2 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (37.0 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.9 percent). Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 43.2 percent. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters. Private-sector industries with high unionization rates included transportation and utilities (21.1 percent) and construction (14.0 percent), while low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.4 percent) and in financial activities (1.6 percent). Among occupational groups, education, training, and library occupations (36.8 percent) and protective service occupations (34.5 percent) had the highest unionization rates in 2011. Sales and related occupations (3.0 percent) and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (3.4 percent) had the lowest unionization rates….

By age, the union membership rate was highest among workers 55 to 64 years old (15.7 percent). The lowest union membership rate occurred among those ages 16 to 24 (4.4 percent).\”

My sense is that many people know the unionization rate is higher in the public sector than in the private sector. However, it wasn\’t until recently that a majority of the absolute number of unionized workers in the country were in the public sector. Even within the private sector, some of the highest unionization rates are often found in very regulated industries like utilities. In the U.S. private sector, unionization rates are down into single digits and continuing to fade.

Historically, the unionization rate in the United States shows one big rise, leading to a peak in the early 1950s when about one-third of non-agricultural workers belonged to a union. The pattern has been one of decline ever since.

Clearly, the decline in unions has been long and steady, occurring under both political parties. If not for the rise in public sector unions, the decline would have been even more severe. Thus, it doesn\’t make sense to blame this decline on some single event in the last decade or two or three–it\’s bigger than that. In the Winter 2008 issue of my own Journal of Economic Perspectives, Barry T. Hirsch offered an explanation in his paper \”Sluggish Institutions in a Dynamic World: Can Unions and Industrial Competition Coexist?\”  His argument is that overtime, in the dynamic and competitive U.S. markets, formal union rules are too inflexible, and thus impose extra costs on firms which over time make the firms less able to compete. He argues: \”If worker-based institutions are to flourish, they must add value and permit companies to perform at levels similar to those obtained under evolving nonunion governance norms.\”

International comparisons show that the the U.S. economy is something of an outlier in its low levels of union membership. The first column of the table shows the union membership rate in 2006. The second column shows the union \”coverage rate,\” which refers to the total share of workers whose compensation is determined by union bargaining, even if some of those workers are not union members. In the United States, union membership and union coverage are very similar. For example, the BLS report notes that in 2011, the U.S. economy had 14.8 million union members and another 1.5 million workers who did not belong to a union, but whose jobs are covered by a union contract. About half of that 1.5 million are government workers. However, in some other countries, like France, the gap between union membership and union coverage can be quite substantial.  In Japan, it is even possible to be a union member but not to have wages determined by a bargaining contract.

Clearly, it is possible for high-income countries around the world like Germany, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Canada to grow and continue to be high-income even with far higher rate of unionization than the U.S. economy. The extremely wide variation across countries also suggests that unionization may be a rather different phenomenon across countries.

With this wide variation in mind, I\’ve grown cautious over the years about all blanket statements about unionization–positive or negative. In the private sector, American-style unionization has essentially failed to propagate; in the public sector, it has had at best only very partial success. But back in 1970, the great sociologist Albert Hirschman wrote a book called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. He argued that when members of any organization are faced with conflict, they must choose between expressing their disagreement through \”voice\” or leaving the organization through \”exit.\” Many American workplaces are essentially organized around the principle where the voice of workers is constrained and the possibility of exit is emphasized. I sometimes wonder if a different kind of American labor organization might do a better job of using voice to improve productivity and in that way raise the compensation of its members.

Source note: Thanks to Danlu Hu for putting together the time series graph of unionization rates over time and the data table on international comparisons.

For unionization rates over time, the data from 2001 to 2011 is readily available at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Data on U.S. union membership going from 1930 to available at
.  The remaining data can be found by hunting around the BLS website, or else by looking at the 2004 paper by Gerald Mayer, \”Union Membership Trends in the United States.\”

The data on international comparisons is from the Data Base on Institutional Characteristics of Trade Unions, Wage Setting, State Intervention and Social Pacts, 1960-2010, maintained by the  (ICTWSS), available here at the website of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labor Studies.

The Origins of Labor Day

It\’s clear that the first Labor Day celebration was held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, and organized by the Central Labor Union, an early trade union organization operating in the greater New York City area in the 1880s. By the early 1890s, more than 20 states had adopted the holiday. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed into law: \’\’The first Monday of  September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor\’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes,  in the same manner as Christmas, the first day of January, the twenty-second day of February, the thirtieth day of May, and the fourth day of July are now made by law public holidays.\” 

What is less well-known, at least to me, is that the very first Labor Day parade almost didn\’t happen, and that historians now dispute which person is most responsible for that first Labor Day.

U.S. Department of Labor tells how first Labor Day almost didn\’t happen, for lack of a band: 

\”On the morning of September 5, 1882, a crowd of spectators filled the sidewalks of lower Manhattan near city hall and along Broadway. They had come early, well before the Labor Day Parade marchers, to claim the best vantage points from which to view the first Labor Day Parade. A newspaper account of the day described \”…men on horseback, men wearing regalia, men with society aprons, and men with flags, musical instruments, badges, and all the other paraphernalia of a procession.\”

The police, wary that a riot would break out, were out in force that morning as well. By 9 a.m., columns of police and club-wielding officers on horseback surrounded city hall.

By 10 a.m., the Grand Marshall of the parade, William McCabe, his aides and their police escort were all in place for the start of the parade. There was only one problem: none of the men had moved. The few marchers that had shown up had no music.

According to McCabe, the spectators began to suggest that he give up the idea of parading, but he was determined to start on time with the few marchers that had shown up. Suddenly, Mathew Maguire of the Central Labor Union of New York (and probably the father of Labor Day) ran across the lawn and told McCabe that two hundred marchers from the Jewelers Union of Newark Two had just crossed the ferry — and they had a band!

Just after 10 a.m., the marching jewelers turned onto lower Broadway — they were playing \”When I First Put This Uniform On,\” from Patience, an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. The police escort then took its place in the street. When the jewelers marched past McCabe and his aides, they followed in behind. Then, spectators began to join the march. Eventually there were 700 men in line in the first of three divisions of Labor Day marchers.

With all of the pieces in place, the parade marched through lower Manhattan. The New York Tribune reported that, \”The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization.\”

At noon, the marchers arrived at Reservoir Park, the termination point of the parade. While some returned to work, most continued on to the post-parade party at Wendel\’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue; even some unions that had not participated in the parade showed up to join in the post-parade festivities that included speeches, a picnic, an abundance of cigars and, \”Lager beer kegs… mounted in every conceivable place.\”

From 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. that night, nearly 25,000 union members and their families filled the park and celebrated the very first, and almost entirely disastrous, Labor Day.\”

As to the originator of Labor Day, the traditional story I learned back in the day gave credit to Peter McGuire, the founder of the Carpenters Union and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. At a meeting of the Central Labor Union of New York on May 8, 1882, the story went, he recommended that Labor Day be designated to honor \”those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.\” McGuire also typically received credit for suggesting the first Monday in September for the holiday, \”as it would come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.\” He envisioned that the day would begin with a parade, \”which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,\” and then continue with \”a picnic or festival in some grove.

But in recent years, the International Association of Machinists have also staked their claim, because one of their members named Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882 and who clearly played a major role in organizing the day. The U.S. Department of Labor has a quick summary of the controversy.

 \”According to the New Jersey Historical Society, after President Cleveland signed into law the creation of a national Labor Day, The Paterson (N.J.) Morning Call published an opinion piece entitled, \”Honor to Whom Honor is Due,\” which stated that \”the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.\” This editorial also referred to Maguire as the \”Father of the Labor Day holiday. …

According to The First Labor Day Parade, by Ted Watts, Maguire held some political beliefs that were considered fairly radical for the day and also for Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor. Allegedly, Gompers did not want Labor Day to become associated with the sort of \”radical\” politics of Matthew Maguire, so in a 1897 interview, Gompers\’ close friend Peter J. McGuire was assigned the credit for the origination of Labor Day.\”