Study: Construction, Public Jobs Drive Rise in New York City Union Density

NEW YORK –Increasing employment in construction and already high density in education and public service jobs drove a rise in New York City union density in the last year and a half, reversing seven years of declines, a new study reveals.

The City University of New York Graduate Center reports 24 percent of all workers within the city’s five boroughs are union members in 2013-14, the highest percentage among U.S. cities.  That’s up from 21.5 percent two years ago.  And, in the same 18 months starting in January 2013, 28.7 percent of New York City residents are union members, it said.

In the 2013-14 of data, the city trailed the state in union density: New York state was 26 percent unionized, the study says.  Both the city and the state double national union density.

New York City’s union density is also more than double the national figures in several job sectors, such as finance, insurance and real estate.  And it’s also double in the public sector: 71 percent in both the city and the state, compared to 35 percent nationwide.

CUNY professors Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce used data from the federal Current Population Survey, a continuous study of tens of thousands of households.  CPS produces numbers that governments and researchers use between official censuses.  To produce more accurate data and trends, Milkman and Luce analyzed the 18 months’ worth of numbers.

“Amidst the relentless decline of unionism nationwide, we were surprised to see the recent growth in union density in New York City and state,” Milkman said.  “This reflects post-recession employment growth in historically unionized industries like hotels, building services, and especially construction.”

While public sector unionization in New York City is at national highs, private sector union growth drove the recent rise in the city’s union density, the study says.  The city’s private-sector union density rose from 12.9 percent in 2012 to 16.2 percent in 2013-14.  The latter share is almost two and a half times national private-sector union density (6.7 percent).

“What drove this sudden reversal of fortune?  In large part, it reflects the economic rebound of key sectors of the economy that suffered dramatic employment losses during the Great Recession.

“The most important such sector is construction, a highly unionized industry in which employment virtually collapsed during the recession, and which remained depressed for years after the start of the anemic recovery, but is now again showing signs of life,” it said.  Union density in city construction rose from 18 percent in calendar 2012 to 25 percent in 2013-14.

“It is too early to tell whether this uptick in union density reflects a long-term trend, but the growth is a promising sign for New York’s workers,” Luce added.  “The data show once again that union membership greatly improves workers’ wages.”

“Union contracts may no longer set the wage standard for the city’s workforce as a whole, but they often do so in such key sectors of the urban economy as hotels, hospitals, nursing care, and telecommunications, as well as in public sector industries like transit, education, home health care – the unionized portion of which is publicly funded – and public administration,” the CUNY study reports.

New York private-sector union density is higher despite little input from manufacturing.  Unions had a higher share (17 percent) of factory workers in New York City in 2013-14  than they did in the U.S. as a whole (10 percent), the CPS data show.  But factories employ one of every nine workers nationwide, compared to one of every 25 in the city.

On the other hand, 13.7 percent of New York City department and discount store workers are unionized, more than five times as many as the national union share (2.6 percent).

Unions also benefit from New York’s large Puerto Rican population.  Among ethnic groups, they were the most-unionized (44 percent) in 2013-14.  New York state (40 percent) was almost as high, while 15 percent of Puerto Ricans nationally are union members.

Overall, 24 percent of the city’s Latinos are unionized, trailing African-Americans (38 percent), but ahead of whites (19 percent).  The study shows Latinos are second because of low union density (4 percent) among Mexican immigrants: Most are recent arrivals, young, undocumented, or all of those.