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Labor unions see rise in NY membership, but it's still below 2019 levels

Imran Ansari
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Monday, January 24, 2022

This article was written by Victor Ocasio at Newsday.

Union membership in New York State saw a bump in 2021, bucking a three-year downward trend.

The ranks of private-sector and public-sector workers' unions in the state grew by 68,000, or 4%, from 2020, according to a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gain, which put total New York union membership at 1.72 million, almost makes up for the 71,000-member loss seen from 2019 to 2020.

The bureau’s report does not include a breakdown of union membership numbers or rates for Long Island. Local estimates from labor groups and experts suggest the Island is home to more than 250,000 union members.

Union members accounted for 22.2% of employed New Yorkers last year, up from 22% in 2020, data shows.

"The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released today reaffirms what we already know; New York State is the bedrock of the union movement," Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, an umbrella group of union locals, said in a statement.

"We are proud to add members at a time when so many working people are reevaluating their work life, and at a time when corporations continue to ramp up efforts to block union organizing," he said.

Ryan Stanton, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, said the new numbers reflect workers' desire for "a fair deal and a better life."

"It’s clear that over the last year there has been an astounding amount of union momentum," Stanton said. "We’ve had a number of high-profile campaigns at flagship American companies."

Last year saw several instances of high-profile union and labor activity, including strikes at Kellogg’s, Nabisco and John Deere.

"We saw the historic successful campaign of workers at Starbucks in Buffalo. We saw a historic victory here on Long Island with farmworkers finally securing the right to organize and doing so successfully," he said.

National decline

While the state may have seen increases in union membership, the nation did not.

"In New York State you did get a different picture," said Gregory DeFreitas, labor economics professor at Hofstra University.

Nationally, union membership declined by 241,000 to 14 million, and the membership rate — the percentage of union workers compared to the number of all working Americans — fell to 10.3% in 2021 from 10.8% in 2020, according to the bureau.

In 2020, the country saw a slight uptick in its union membership rate, though that change was due primarily to mass layoffs in industries with low numbers of unions, like retail, food service, and other frontline workers, said Margaret Poydock, policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

"The industries that have high unionization rates, like manufacturing and the public sector, did not see those job losses as much," Poydock said.

'Positive signs for unions'

Despite "steep odds challenging workers" who want better pay and workplace standards through unionization, DeFreitas said the pandemic has made many Americans more amenable to organizing.

There are "absolutely some very positive signs for unions with the new generation of pro-union youth," he said.

A Gallup Poll from last fall showed that 68% of Americans support labor unions, the highest approval rating since 1965 when Gallup reported 71% of the U.S. supported unions.

Union geography

Most-unionized states by membership rate

  • Hawaii: 22.4% of all workers were union members
  • New York: 22.2%
  • Washington: 19%

Least-unionized states

  • South Carolina: 1.7%
  • North Carolina: 2.6%
  • Utah: 3.5%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics