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Why the State of New York’s Unions Should Concern Us All

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amytraub4Talk to a working New Yorker, and the odds are one in four that she belongs to a union. That’s a rate of union membership more than twice as high as the country as a whole, note CUNY professor Ruth Milkman and graduate student Laura Braslow in their new study, “The State of the Unions: A Profile of 2009-2010 Union Membership in New York City, New York State, and the USA.” Their research provides a rich analysis of data on union demographics and industry composition in the city, state, and country, and suggests some hidden strengths and challenges of New York’s economy.

New York City is home to 800,000 union members, with particular union density in the public sector and the health care and social assistance industries. By and large, these union jobs continue to be good jobs: the CUNY analysis finds that union members in New York City earn more than non-union workers, while national statistics suggest that they are also more likely to earn middle-class health and retirement benefits.

Unionized positions represent a particularly important source of good jobs for people of color: African-American New Yorkers (37% unionized) and city residents born in Puerto Rico (41% unionized) are among the most likely to be union members. National data also indicate that people of color see especially strong benefits from collective bargaining, suggesting how important unions are to sustaining New York City’s African American and Latino middle class. Women also get a big boost in job quality as a result of union membership – it turns out that working women in New York are as likely to be union members as men.

What the statistics don’t capture is the way that high union density also improves job standards for workers are not union members, as when the city’s large non-union hotels pay wages far above the national standard because New York’s hotel union has effectively set a higher industry-wide rate. New York’s unions have also helped to advance a political agenda that benefits workers far outside their membership: consider the pivotal role New York unions played in the successful fight to increase the state’s minimum wage in 2004, or the efforts unions are making today to guarantee paid sick time to all working people in New York City.

In effect, New York’s relatively high rate of unionization mitigates the city’s extreme inequality, carving out a bastion of middle-class jobs in an economy increasingly divided between Wall Street’s resurgent masters of the universe and everyone else. Yet this mitigating power has sharp limitations: the CUNY analysis illustrates how retail sales, the restaurant industry, and other service jobs in the city remain largely non-union. As a result, these sectors suffer not only low wages and few benefits, but widespread cases of wage theft and other violations of basic employment standards. Lousy jobs proliferate where unions are absent.

“Organized labor has more than held its own in New York relative to the nation,” the CUNY study concludes, “[but] in absolute terms unions have lost considerable ground in both the City and the State over the past few decades, especially in the private sector… In labor’s glory days, a strongly unionized private sector helped foster a strongly social-democratic political culture in New York City. The precipitous drop in private-sector density is among the factors that have threatened to undermine that political culture in recent years.” If New York’s unions continue to decline, New York’s middle class may continue to disappear with it.

This article was originally published on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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