On January 23, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its annual Economic News Release: Union Members Summary. It announced that the overall union membership rate – the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union – dropped from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012. The rate of union workers in the private workforce was 6.6 percent in 2012, while the rate of union workers in the government workforce was 35.9 percent.  In 2012 there were more public employee union members (7.3 million) that private industry union members (7.0 million).

In the United States, 13.2 percent of construction workers belonged to a union in 2012 (with 13.7 percent represented by a union). This percentage has been declining since the late 1960s. It dropped from 14.0 percent in 2011.

A similar decline in union membership and representation is seen in the California construction workforce. In the 1960s, the construction workforce in California was overwhelmingly unionized, with official statistics indicating a unionization rate that exceeded 100% (because of statistical anomalies). But the percentage started dropping precipitously after that, as indicated by the establishment of various chapters of the non-union Associated Builders and Contractors in California in the mid-1970s.

The low percentages of unionization in the California construction industry and their decline through 2012 may be surprising to people who see significant political power for construction unions on the state and local levels of government. Here are statistics for California from 1983 to 2012 and for the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles area from 1986 to 2012. 

California

Year

# of Workers

Union Members

Percentage that are Union Members

Covered by Union Agreement

Percentage Covered by Union Agreement

1983

398,031

156,189

39.2

164,233

41.3

2000

738,760

176,288

23.9

183,577

24.8

2006

1,007,227

175,828

17.5

181,604

18.0

2007

1,082,631

178,624

16.5

184,031

17.0

2008

923,815

186,994

20.2

196,386

21.3

2009

734,894

129,251

17.6

132,541

18.0

2010

707,158

110,716

15.7

116,498

16.5

2011

686,035

115,619

16.9

124,965

18.2

2012

746,875

119,015

15.9

122,449

16.4

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside Metropolitan Area

Year

# of Workers

Union Members

Percentage that are Union Members

Covered by Union Agreement

Percentage Covered by Union Agreement

1986

272,836

64,392

23.6

71,653

26.3

2000

334,521

61,972

18.5

66,668

19.9

2006

499,943

79,090

15.8

81,972

16.4

2007

516,433

71,980

13.9

75,143

14.6

2008

458,099

74,017

16.2

76,700

16.7

2009

383,252

75,975

19.8

78,226

20.4

2010

356,387

56,549

15.9

58,651

16.5

2011

350,176

56,955

16.3

60,349

17.2

2012

342,007

53,826

15.7

55,027

16.1

San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose Metropolitan Area

Year

# of Workers

Union Members

Percentage that are Union Members

Covered by Union Agreement

Percentage Covered by Union Agreement

1986

139,884

72,416

51.8

72,416

51.8

2000

155,118

53,839

34.7

53,839

34.7

2006

205,208

55,579

27.1

55,579

27.1

2007

236,372

51,243

21.7

52,288

22.1

2008

229,711

70,441

30.7

70,441

30.7

2009

158,908

31,685

19.9

32,724

20.6

2010

167,332

19,623

11.7

21,776

13.0

2011

153,608

33,095

21.5

37,044

24.1

2012

179,883

31,373

17.4

32,390

18.0

 
What is stunning about these percentages is the decline in the unionized percentage of the California construction workforce during and after the collapse of the residential construction market from 2007 to 2009.

In the 2000s, residential construction was generally non-union throughout the state, and the virtual stop to residential and commercial construction should have proportionally lifted the percentage of union workers as public works and health care (types of building construction with a stronger union presence) became more dominant in the industry.

In addition, it appears that construction unions were not successful in holding or gaining market share through their political strategy of government-mandated Project Labor Agreements and their litigation strategy of exploiting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to pressure private developers into Project Labor Agreements. One can only guess at the percentage of unionization if top construction union officials did not promote and practice these strategies.

I expect someone at the University of California Miguel Contreras Labor Program will one day help the unions examine the possible causes of this unexpected trend in the California construction industry. For now, I will guess that difficult economic circumstances starting in late 2007 and early 2008 created a more competitive bidding environment (on both public works and private construction) in which unionized contractors had difficulty competing for and winning bids. Prosperous economic times (such as 2000 and 2006) seem to benefit union representation in the construction industry. At state and local government meetings in 2009, 2010, and 2011, construction union lobbyists routinely reported 25 to 35 percent unemployment rates among their membership.


The best neutral source of information regarding union density is the Union Membership and Coverage Database, available at www.unionstats.com. This is an Internet data resource providing private and public sector labor union membership, coverage, and density estimates compiled from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly household survey, using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics methods.

Union statistics in specific metropolitan areas for private construction are found in this category: III. Metropolitan Area: Union Membership, Coverage, Density, and Employment by Metropolitan Area and Sector, 1986-2012. Two regions of California are included in this category: the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Kevin Dayton is the President and CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com.

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