New Study Shows That Union Erosion Contributed To Disproportionately Low-Wage Job Growth

Ten years after the Great Recession of 2008, employment has rebounded in New York City and New York state (the unemployment rate was 4.0% for the state in July 2019). However, this job growth has been disproportionately concentrated in low-wage industries, especially in the private sector, according to a report released today by the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. The report, State of the Unions 2019, A Profile of Organized Labor in New York City, New York State, and the United States, conducted annually, reveals that in recent decades, losses in union membership have been disproportionately concentrated in the private sector, a trend that accelerated after the Great Recession. By contrast, in the public sector, union density has been relatively stable in the City, while declining slightly over the past few years in the U.S. and New York State.

The report highlights rising employment levels over the decade, of 10 percent in the state, 13 percent in the New York City Metropolitan Area, and 19 percent in the City. While this reflects the strength of New York’s economy, the quality of the new jobs is a major disappointment.  Adjusting for inflation, average annual earnings increased only 2 percent for workers in New York City from 2008 to 2018, 3 percent in the metropolitan area and 7 percent statewide. Earnings have been particularly weak in the private sector; where they declined by 1 percent between 2008 and 2018 in the City. By contrast, in the public sector, earnings rose 20 percent at the state level and 28 percent at the city level.

“What we see here is emblematic of a national trend. The economy continues to grow, unemployment is at an all-time low, yet workers’ wages lag behind, even as health care costs continue to skyrocket and inequality is rising,” said report co-author Ruth Milkman, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies and the Graduate Center, CUNY. “On average, more union than non-union workers earn a living wage, so it is no surprise that declining private-sector union density has contributed to earnings erosion.”

The report highlights another disappointing dimension of the earnings picture, namely job losses in industries with relatively high wages (such as manufacturing, finance, and wholesale trade) and job growth in industries where average annual earnings are below the living wage (such as health care and social assistance, retail and food services).  Nonunion workers are far more likely to earn less than a living wage as the Table below shows.

The report also flags other trends involving unions and workers in New York and nationally. Unionization rates are much higher for older workers than they are for younger workers. In New York City, they are highest for workers aged 55 years or more, somewhat lower for those aged 25-54, and lowest for those aged 16-24. This pattern suggests the need for more union organizing among newer and younger labor market entrants.

“Despite an overall decline in union density, New York City and New York State remain among the best places to work because union membership is relatively high,” said co-author Stephanie Luce, Chair and Professor of Labor Studies, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “But New York cannot rest on its laurels. The labor movement must actively recruit new members into its ranks to maintain a strong economy and fair wages for all.”

The report also includes an in-depth look at the geographic, demographic, and occupational makeup of unions in New York City, New York State, and the nation.

The School of Labor and Urban Studies (CUNY SLU) is the 25th and newest school under the CUNY umbrella. It offers undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs in Labor Studies and Urban Studies that are designed to meet the needs of working adults as well as traditional-age college students.

SLU is an outgrowth of the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, established in 1984 by CUNY in collaboration with three New York City unions and began with 52 students. Today, the leaders of 26 labor and community organizations serve on the SLU’s advisory board.

The vision for SLU derives from its core values: access to education, diversity at every level, social justice, and equality for all. Its goals are to expand higher education opportunities for workers; prepare students who aspire to careers in public service and movements for social justice; promote civic engagement; provide leadership development for union and community activists; and help workers achieve greater economic security. For more information visit www.slu.cuny.edu.

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