In a pandemic year that clobbered the state job market, California unions grew their share of the workforce to the highest level in six years.
But in the curious world of coronavirus economics, this gain didn’t occur as one normally expects. In a historically bad job market, unions lost far fewer workers than non-union employers cut.
The annual accounting of organized labor’s clout by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows California unions in 2020 had 2.44 million working members. That’s the nation’s largest membership even as statewide union rolls fell to a seven-year low.
You see, the statewide tally of membership declined 63,000 last year, a 2.5% drop and the third loss in four years. So how did unions’ slice of the statewide job market grow?
Well, pandemic-limiting business restrictions cut statewide employment of all workers by more than triple the union loss rate — a stunning 8.6% decline last year. That gap in job losses translated to California unions with 16.2% of statewide employment last year — up from 15.2% in 2019 and the union’s highest share of workers since 2014.
Or look at the trend this way: Unions that have 1-in-6 California jobs but organized labor accounted for only 1-in-25 of 2020’s statewide job losses.
Collective bargaining power likely had little to do with the outperformance of union jobs. Rather, it was more about the job mix and coronavirus fallout.
Consider the California industries hardest hit by the pandemic — hospitality jobs that are often non-union workplaces. Then ponder various “essential” work such as first responders, supermarket staff, nursing and logistics workers. All are heavily unionized.
This trend isn’t just California. The rest of the U.S. had 11.81 million union members last year, down 258,000 or 2.1%. Compare that with the nationwide job market which lost 6.5% of its workers, and union share jumped to 10.1% from 9.6%.
Yet like many business twists in the pandemic era, union employment trends were far different during the Great Recession.
In 2009-10, California unions lost 309,000 jobs or 11% of membership. Overall, the state lost jobs at a 7% rate. Union share of the workforce fell from its most recent peak of 18.4% in 2008 to 17.5% in two years.
In that broader economic meltdown of the late 2000s, job cuts were plentiful in union-heavy industries from construction to transportation to factory work to government employees.
Again, poor union performance was a national pattern in that recession. U.S. unions lost 1.07 million members in 2009-10. That 8% drop was twice the total job losses of only 4%. As a result, union’s share in other states fell to 11.1% from 11.7%.
I know the union movement is a divisive issue in business-related political debate, locally and nationally. But politics and economics can dance to different beats as 2020 membership patterns show us.
California had the seventh-highest share of unionized workers among the states at 16.2% behind No. 1 Hawaii at 23.7% Both are considered “liberal” politically.
And, not surprisingly, labor’s lowest share was found in “conservative” South Carolina at 2.6%.
Now, look where unions did best: “Red” Texas had 66,000 new members last year. However, labor’s biggest cuts were in “blue” Washington, a loss of 81,000 jobs.
Or look at last year’s changes on a percentage basis. The biggest union gain was found in “red” North Carolina, up 27%. The largest loss for unions was in “blue” Colorado, down 23%.
The pandemic’s odd gyrations in the job market may help explain labor’s ups and downs in 2020. Or perhaps the union movement’s evolution isn’t as politically entwined as we may think.
Source: Orange County Register