The decline in union membership observed nationally appears to be occurring in New York as well.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday released union membership rates measured across the economy (though the academic team at UnionStats.com beat them to the punch, analyzing the feds’ own data faster). The small change in the national rate, from 10.1 to 10.0 percent of workers, reflected a continuation of a multi-decade downward trend. Union membership was 15 percent nationwide in the mid-1990s and 20 percent in the early 1980s.
New York was again near the top with 20.4 percent, second only to Hawaii. That’s down slightly from 20.6 percent in 2022, but it’s also another modern low.
New York’s membership rate averaged 25 percent in the lead-up to the Great Recession, which was below the 28 percent it averaged in the early 1990s. New York’s union membership rate averaged nearly 35 percent during the 1970s.
New York’s union membership rates differ significantly between the public and private sectors. Last year an estimated 63.5 percent of New York public employees belonged to a union. Public-sector union membership exploded in the late 1960s and early 1970s following passage of the Taylor Law, which required state agencies, local governments and school districts to negotiate with labor unions. It rose further still after Governor Hugh Carey in 1977 signed an “agency-shop” law forcing non-member public employees to pay a dues-like fee (and employees joined because they had to pay regardless).
The membership rate inched up slightly in the decades after as opportunities to organize became more scarce. More recently it declined after public employees won back the right to choose following the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME.
The private sector is a different story. The percentage of private-sector workers who last year belonged to a union (12 percent) was just half of where it stood in the early 1980s. A portion of that decline stemmed from the evaporation of the state’s manufacturing sector: New York, according to UnionStats, had an estimated 409,000 union members in manufacturing jobs in 1983, compared to just 48,000 last year.
The decline in union manufacturing jobs, along with the growth of New York’s public sector, means New York at times has had more union members in the public sector than the private sector. That was again the case last year (861,000 versus 833,000). It bears noting much of New York’s “private-sector” union membership is today in the heavily subsidized health care sector, meaning private-sector unions as a whole have less of a stake in the state’s economic competitiveness than they had historically (and are often aligned with public-sector unions on tax and spending issues).
The changing trends in union membership are important because deleterious public policy is often rationalized on the basis of New York being a “union state.” Unionization, and with it union membership, are treated as unalloyed goods. And politicians fear few pejoratives more than “anti-union.”
Yet deference to union leaders has helped produce or preserve everything from New York’s one-of-a-kind Scaffold Law to its subsidies for film and television producers to the wastefulness of its transit, water and other infrastructure projects to rules shielding dangerous teachers from discipline.
The fact is those union leaders speak for a shrinking share of New Yorkers. Will elected officials listen more to everyone else?