Report: Unions Trend Toward Female Majority

Dec. 2, 2009
Study shows significant shift from manufacturing to services sector having dramatic impact on organized labor demographics.

If current trends continue, women in the United States will dominate the unionized workforce by 2020, and organized labor will have a smaller presence in manufacturing, according to a study published by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR). The report, entitled "The Changing Face of Labor, 1983-2008," shows women made up more than 45% of the unionized workforce in 2008, up from 35% in 1983.

Women made most of these gains outside of manufacturing in public-sector positions such as teaching, says John Schmitt, a senior economist with CEPR and co-author of the report, which was released on Nov. 10. Public-sector employees comprise nearly half of the unionized workforce, up from 34% in 1983.

The demographic shift also could be attributed to unions becoming more flexible with the needs of working women, says Terri Burgess Sandu, executive director of Hard Hatted Women, a Cleveland-based organization that helps women enter the labor workforce.

"I think most companies, especially larger companies, recognize that having a diverse workforce is a strategic advantage," Sandu says.

Sandu points to unions including language such as workplace flexibility and family leave in contract negotiations as signs of progress.

"There seems to be a turning point where issues of working women are no longer a sideline issue," she says.

Manufacturing Membership Down

While the report shows women are making some inroads in the labor force, it also indicates a significant decline in U.S. manufacturing.

"One of the most-interesting developments is that the manufacturing workforce is less likely to be unionized than the rest of the workforce," Schmitt says. "That's something that's definitely new."

About 11% of union workers were in manufacturing in 2008, down from nearly 30% in 1983. The decline coincides with an even faster decrease in manufacturing as a part of the overall economy. In 1983, nearly 23% of the total workforce was in manufacturing, compared with 12% in 2008, according to the report.

The decline in manufacturing employment coupled with private-sector labor laws that make unionization more difficult appear to be contributing factors to the drop-off, Schmitt says.

A bill pending in Congress called the Employee Free Choice Act is intended to make it easier for workers to form unions by allowing them to sign authorization cards rather than secret-ballot elections. The bill has been criticized by employers and pro-business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as unfairly favoring labor. Critics say the bill could open the door for coercion and intimidation against coworkers who don't sign the authorization cards. It also could put government regulators in charge of labor negotiations since unions and management would only have 120 days to reach agreement before government arbitrators step in.

Unions More Diverse, Older and Educated

No matter what legislative actions are taken, it appears that a greater number of workers from ethnically diverse backgrounds will have a say in union activities. In 2008 69% of union workers in the United States were white, down from 78.2% in 1983. The number of African-American union members is nearly unchanged, but Latino and Asian Pacific representation has increased substantially, according to the CEPR report.

Latino membership has increased 6.4 percentage points to 12.2% and the Asian Pacific share increased 2.1 percentage points to 4.6%. The rise in Latino workers coincides with an increasing Hispanic population and overall workforce share.

At the same time, unions appear to be aging. In 2008 the typical union worker was 45 years old, about seven years older than in 1983. The most heavily unionized age group was 55 to 64 year olds (18.4% in a union). The least unionized group was 16 to 24 year olds (5.7%).

Unions also are more educated with more than one-third (37.5%) of workers holding a four-year college degree or higher, up from 20.3% in 1983. In 2008 nearly half of union women had at least a four-year college degree.

Schmitt and co-author Kris Warner conclude that the unionized workforce will continue to follow overall workforce trends over the next decade, during which time women will become the majority and ethnic minorities will become more prevalent.

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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