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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

US Unions

In 2001, there were 16.3 million union members among 121 million employed workers, 13.5 percent, and 18 million workers represented by unions, 15 percent. Almost 20 percent of workers 45 to 54 were members of or represented by unions, compared to 12-13 percent of workers ages 25 to 34. Black men are most likely to be union members, 19 percent, and Hispanic and white women least likely to be union members, 11 percent.

By occupation, the highest rate of unionization is protective services, where 40 percent of workers are union members or represented by unions, and the lowest is farming, with five percent. By industry, local government has the highest unionization rate, almost 50 percent, and farming the lowest, two percent.

Median weekly earnings in 2001 were $600 a week, and union members had significantly higher median earnings than non-union members, $700 compared to $575, for a union wage premium of 25 percent. The union wage premium was 30 percent for Black men, and 35 percent for Hispanic women.

The Current Population Survey reported that an average 1.9 million workers had farming, forestry, and fishing occupations in 2001, that 85,000 were union members, and that 96,000 were represented by unions, about five percent. The median weekly earnings of persons with farming, forestry, and fishing occupations were $354, or $587 for union members and $345 for non-union members, a union wage premium of 70 percent. By industry, CPS reported that 1.5 million workers were employed in agriculture, and 27,0000 were union members, and 33,000 were represented by unions, about two percent.

A September 2002 GAO report estimated that 75 percent of US workers- 103 million of 135 million in February 2001 (there were an additional six million self-employed workers)- had some form of collective bargaining rights under federal, state, or local labor relations laws. Coverage was 78 percent among the 115 million private-sector workers, and 66 percent among the 20 million public-sector workers- 26 states provide collective bargaining rights to most public-sector employees.

The largest groups among the 32 million workers without collective bargaining rights were 10.2 million supervisors (mostly first-line); 8.5 million independent contractors; 6.9 million federal, state, and local workers; 5.5 employees of small businesses; 532,000 domestic workers; and 357,000 agricultural workers.

The GAO noted that nine states provide farm workers with some form of collective bargaining rights. Four states have state farm labor relations laws (Arizona, California, Oregon and Maine), five do not expressly exclude agricultural workers from their "little NLRA" labor relations laws (Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Kansas, which has both a state farm labor relations law and covers agricultural workers under its little NLRA). GAO estimated that half of US agricultural workers have collective bargaining rights.

GAO noted that two 2002 US Supreme Court decisions reversing the NLRB may reduce the number of workers with collective bargaining rights and reduce the number of workers entitled to remedies for violations of labor laws. In the Kentucky River decision, the NLRB was ordered by the Supreme Court to change its method of determining who is a supervisor in a manner that will allow more employees to be classified as supervisors, and thus exempt from the NLRA. In this case, the NLRB said that a nurse who instructed lesser skilled workers was not a supervisor because her instruction was based on her education, not her independent authority in the workplace. The US Supreme Court said that the NLRB must consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether there is enough independent authority exercised by such instructors to consider them supervisors.

In Hoffman Plastics, the NLRB was barred from awarding backpay to the estimated 5.5 million unauthorized foreign workers in the US if they are unlawfully fired for engaging in union activities and lose wages as a result. The NLRB argued that awarding backpay to unauthorized workers improved the enforcement of immigration laws, since employers would not be tempted to hire unauthorized workers and violate their labor rights. The Supreme Court disagreed, in effect deciding that the worker's violation of immigration law was more serious than the employer's violation of labor law. The GAO estimated there were 8.7 million unauthorized foreigners in 2000, including 7.1 million between the ages of 18 and 65, with 77 percent covered by labor relations laws.

The US Supreme Court in November 2002 refused to consider whether workers can be forced to pay for union-organizing activities in other workplaces against their wishes; grocery workers sued to prevent their dues being used to organize store workers in other areas. Workers in 28 states can be forced to pay some dues, whether or not they join the union, under collective bargaining agreements negotiated with employers; the other 22 states, mostly in the southeast, have restrictions under right-to-work laws. The NLRB held that the workers can be required to pay for organizing in other areas because they benefit when wages rise for all grocery store employees, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the NLRB.

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