New York has always been a strong union state.
But new figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that union membership in 2012 declined to its lowest level since 1989, when the agency began tracking such figures, mirroring a national trend.
According to the BLS, union members accounted for 23.2 percent of wage and salary workers in New York in 2012, compared with 24.1 percent in 2011.
Even so, New York’s union membership remains the highest in the country.
The state had 1.8 million union members in 2012. In addition, another 134,000 wage and salary workers in New York were represented by a union on their main job or covered by an employee association or contract while not being union members themselves.
Stephen Madarasz, a spokesman for CSEA, said New York’s decline in union membership has been caused by a number of factors. One big factor has been the shrinking of the state’s public sector workforce, which has lost 60,000 jobs since 2010, largely through consolidation, attrition and cuts.
According to a report from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany, the recession that began in 2008 resulted in much deeper cuts to state and local government than any previous recession. Since August 2008, overall state government employment has declined by 135,000, while local government employment fell by 546,000.
“Our recovery would be a lot stronger without the loss of public sector jobs,” he said.
Madarasz said unions have been the victim of “a concerted effort” to undermine labor, and that the National Labor Relations Board was gutted under former President George W. Bush, which had a negative effect on membership.
“These trends have had an impact on us,” Madarasz said.
Sara Niccoli, executive director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, attributed the decline in union membership to the migration of manufacturing jobs overseas that began in the 1990s with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Niccoli said that as union membership has declined, the Labor-Religion Coalition has adjusted. Its Sweatshop Free Campaign used to focus on garment workers in the U.S., but now focuses on getting people and institutions to fight exploitative conditions throughout the world, and purchase clothes that haven’t been made by overseas workers toiling in sweatshops.
But there are grass-roots efforts to unionize low-wage workers in the U.S., Niccoli said, noting that the Fast Food Forward campaign, which focuses on organizing workers in the fast food sector, has had some success.
Traditionally, low-wage retail and restaurant workers have not had union representation. But Niccoli said there’s been more of a recognition that such jobs are no longer temporary, and that workers cannot support their families earning minimum wage.
“There’s been a push to organize workers at the bottom of the food chain,” Niccoli said. “These are becoming more permanent jobs.”
Nationwide, union members accounted for only 11.3 percent of employed wage and salary workers in 2012.
All told, last year about 14.4 million wage and salary workers were union members, while 1.6 million wage and salary workers were not affiliated with a union but had jobs covered by a union contract. About half of the country’s union members lived in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio.
North Carolina had the lowest rate of union membership, at 2.2 percent.