With all the filthy lucre sloshing around on Wall Street, New York City may not strike you as a bastion of organized labor. But the city is in fact the nation’s leading union town. And in the past year, according to researchers at the City University of New York, there has even been a slight increase in unionization in the five boroughs.
About 24 percent of wage and salary workers in New York City are union members, a small but significant increase over the past year, from about 21.5 percent in 2012 . Statewide, according to Current Population Survey data analyzed in the study, New York remains the most union dense state in the country at 24.6 percent of workers.
According to the authors, Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce, the increase—amid a multi-year trend of decline—appears to be driven by hiring trends, not organizing new sectors. As the so-called “recovery” boosts labor demand, long unionized industries are just hiring more. “There are some new organizing efforts here and there, but nothing that accounts for this [increase],” Milkman tells The Nation. “It seems to just be shifts in the labor market reflecting long-unionized sectors that are rebounding.”
Union density in a large population offers only a rough gauge of actual labor activity. The overall number of union members may fluctuate from year to year whenever big unionized industries add or shed jobs, Milkman explains, but that does not capture, and could even mask, the effect of new union formation in smaller-scale workplaces—like the handful of immigrant workers who have recently unionized at local carwashes.
Much of last year’s growth in union workers has come in the construction industry, where unionization in the NYC metro area is about 27 percent, and 30 percent statewide—about twice the industry rate nationwide. But construction trades are a mixed bag, because employers can use both union and non-union workers on different jobs, and the industry runs on short-term contract work. Milkman says the recent trendlines point to growth in both union and non-union construction jobs, but with relatively strong growth among union members.
Overall, New York’s unionization rates are highest in the public sector, at about 70 percent. But surprisingly, recent expansion of union membership centers on private-sector workplaces. Alongside union boosts in the building trades, unions have made gains in building-based services, like janitors and porters, and hotels, where over a third of the labor force is union.
Though undocumented immigrants often work non-union jobs, immigrants (who make up about 37 percent of the city’s population) are rapidly joining the union ranks. Though newer immigrants have relatively low rates of unionization, according to the report, among immigrants who arrived before 1980, the rate is actually higher than that for US-born workers in both New York City and statewide. Black unionization rates have been the highest of any racial or ethnic group, Asians the lowest.