PA Union Membership: What Is It Telling Us?

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

(February 26, 2015)–Pennsylvania’s overall union membership as a
percentage of employment held steady at 12.7 percent in 2014,
unchanged from 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While total employment rose by 27,700, union membership rose 1,900.
Nationally, the percentage of employees who are union members dipped
from 11.3 to 11.1 from 2013 to 2014.

All the net additional union members in Pennsylvania were due to a
2,300 rise in private sector membership and a small offsetting
decline in public sector union members. Interestingly, the
percentage of unionization in the private sector fell slightly from
7.8 to 7.7 as total employment gained 55,400 over 2013. Meantime, the
percentage unionization in the public sector jumped from 50.5 to 52.7
as employment dropped by 27,700.

Pennsylvania’s 12.7 percent overall union membership figure for 2013
and 2014 represents the lowest combined public and private number
since these statistics have been assembled beginning in 1983[1] –
file://fileserver/Users/Server/Documents/Policy%20Briefs/PBVol15No11.doc#_ftn1 . In
that year, Pennsylvania’s total unionization of employees stood
at 27.5 percent, 51.4 percent public and 23.2 percent private. Total
union membership in 1983 stood at 1,195,700 with private sector
members accounting for 855,000 of that total. By 2014, total
membership was down to 702,000, a 30 year decline of just under
500,000 or 41 percent.

The count of private union members has never returned to the 1983
level despite private employment rising from 3.68 million to 4.91
million over the 31 year period. Note that the 2014 reading of
379,000 private union members is just a notch above the lowest level
of the last three decades set in 2012 at 375,400.

Nationally, private sector union membership fell slightly to 6.6
percent, a full point below Pennsylvania’s 7.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s public sector membership has fluctuated
around 50 percent over the three decades with the percent unionized
touching a low point of 46.4 percent in 1985 and hitting a high of
56.9 percent in 2001. Job counts in the public sector have also
fluctuated widely over the period around a long term average of about
650,000 with the largest count posted in 2005 at 721,300 jobs. The
lowest number of public jobs since 1983 was recorded in 2014 at
613,000, down by over 100,000 from nine years earlier. Public union
membership reached its highest total in 2001 at 389,300 but currently
stands well below that at 323,000.

By comparison, the national membership rate for all public employees
was 35.7 percent in 2014, a third lower than Pennsylvania’s 52.7
percent. Based on national rates of membership for Federal, state and
local employees and the public sector total, it can be reasonably
assumed that Pennsylvania’s state and local rates of unionization are
much higher than the national average for those two government
groupings. Nationally, in 2014 Federal union membership was 27.5
percent, state was 29.8 percent, and local 41.9 was percent (Bureau
of Labor Statistics News Release, January 23, 2015). These figures
suggest that in Pennsylvania either the state or local government
union membership percentage must be well above 50 percent, most
likely the local government sector that includes the heavily
unionized schools.

In 2012, Pennsylvania’s private sector union membership was barely
higher than public membership at 375,000 compared to 356,000, despite
the fact that there were almost seven and a half times more private
employees than pubic employees. The sharp fall in public employment
in the last two years has led to a decline in the number of public
union members although the percentage of those employees in unions
has stayed above 50 percent. Note that in 2014, private membership
of 379,000 stood 56,000 above the public union member count. But that
is a far cry from the 515,000 gap by which private sector union
members exceeded public union membership in 1983.

Union membership is tracked in two private sector industries at the
state level, construction and manufacturing. The long term
Pennsylvania story for these sectors is similar to that of the
overall private sector but with some differences. It is noteworthy
that Pennsylvania’s union membership rate for both manufacturing and
construction are on the order of a third higher than the rate for
those sectors in the country as a whole.

Incredibly, the fact that only 19 percent of construction workers are
union members means that 80 percent of the state’s construction
workers are essentially unable to take part in most publicly funded
projects because of Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law.

In light of the enormous decline in Pennsylvania’s total union
membership over the three decades (almost 500,000 members) it might
have been assumed that the political power of unions would have
declined along with their ability to block or promote legislation.
But two factors must be borne in mind. One, the bulk of the drop in
union membership has been in the private sector while public
membership has held reasonably strong. Two, a large share of
retirees in the state were union members who are likely to maintain
loyalty to union political philosophy. For instance, the Port
Authority in Pittsburgh has as many or more retired union members as
active employees. Then too, the state employee retirement system has
more retirees than active employees and the state’s education
retirement system has nearly as many retirees as active members. A
conservative assumption would be that between 50 and 55 percent of
public retirees were union members when they worked.

Then too, a large fraction of local government (including
authorities) and state government employees and retirees who are not,
or who were not, in a union are likely to be biased in favor of
policies that promote increasing the size and scope of government and
protecting the powers given to public sector unions.

Combined these groups (and their families) make up a formidable bloc
of voters. And, it is well known that unions such as SEIU, who
represent private sector employees, are very active politically as
well. And given that almost no legislation that would make
substantial changes to the privileges enjoyed by both private and
public sector unions ever gets very far in Harrisburg, it is obvious
that solidarity among private and public unions is quite strong.

No significant pension reform, no meaningful modification of the
prevailing wage laws, no reform of the binding arbitration law, no
eliminating the right of teachers or transit workers to strike, no
liquor store privatization, resistance to school choice vouchers, and
scant discussion of outsourcing or privatization. The list is long
and the only common denominator is that a union, either public or
private, would be impacted in ways that would reduce their power and
privileges. These special privileges, granted when Pennsylvania had a
very large and robust industrial base, need to be re-thought. It is
not reasonable to think that Marcellus Shale-type finds will come
along to prop up the economy every time the state needs another shot
in the arm. The state should not be content with its below national
growth forever.

Late breaking news: Wisconsin appears poised to pass right-to-work
legislation. Too bad right-to-work in Pennsylvania has not even a
glimmer of chance now or in the near future. And, given the track
record of many failed efforts to pass it in years gone by, seems
unlikely to ever happen.