The State of Illinois’ Unions in 2017

A new study finds that labor unions continue to face both short- and long-term challenges in Illinois. Last year, unionization declined by about 35,000 members in the state. However, the personal benefit to unionization remains strong, as unions raise hourly wages by 8 percent on average in Illinois.

Unionization has been on the decline across the United States. Illinois and the Chicago region have not been immune to these trends.

Researchers at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, the University of Illinois Project for Middle Class Renewal, and Occidental College have released the 4th annual report on union members in the Chicago metropolitan area and in Illinois.

The study, The State of the Unions 2017: A Profile of Unionization in Chicago, in Illinois, and in Americaprovides an overview of unionization by demographics, geography, educational attainment, industry, and occupation, while also assessing worker wages.

Over the past six years there has been a partisan assault on worker organizing rights in many states. Since 2010, there have been 16 states that have passed laws restricting public employees’ collective bargaining rights and 6 states have passed “right-to-work” laws. While union membership can fluctuate for many reasons– including economic restructuring, technological advancements, foreign trade deals, or employer opposition– it is undeniable that union membership has been negatively impacted by state-level policies designed to weaken collective bargaining.

Governor Bruce Rauner attempted to pass local “right-to-work” zones to limit union organizing. Although these attempts failed and Illinois has not passed legislation that restricts collective bargaining rights, the state has still seen a decline in unionization in recent years.

There are approximately 30,000 fewer union members today in Illinois than there were ten years ago, contributing to the 1.1 million-member drop across the nation from 2007 to 2016. Furthermore, there are 881 labor unions and similar organizations in Illinois, a decline of nearly 70 worker establishments over the past ten years.

In the year from 2015 to 2016:

  • The unionization rate declined from 15.2 percent to 14.5 percent;
  • Union members declined from 847,000 to about 812,000;
  • Workers between the ages of 35 and 44 and workers between the ages of 55 and 64 saw drops in union membership.

Unionization 2017 il.PNG

Although there continue to be downward trends, there are some positives for Illinois’ labor movement:

  • The union membership rate for public sector workers is 5.5 percentage points higher than it was ten years ago.
  • From 2015 to 2016, unionization rates marginally increased for Latino and Latina workers, African American workers, young workers, and private sector workers.
  • Overall, workers are more likely to be unionized in Illinois and the Chicago metropolitan area than the nation as a whole.

unionization 2017 il 2.PNG

The report also finds that union membership is influenced by a number of factors. Employment in the public sector, construction, transportation and utilities, mining, educational and health services, and public administration industries all raise the chances that a worker is a union member in Illinois and the Chicagoland area. African-American workers are also statistically more likely to be union members than their racial or ethnic counterparts in the state.

union illionis state of unions 17.PNG

Labor unions increase individual incomes by lifting hourly wages – particularly for low-income workers. In Illinois, unions raise worker wages by an average of 8 percent. The union wage differential is higher for the bottom 25 percent of workers (9.3 percent) than the richest 25 percent of workers (7.2 percent). Thus, unions continue to reduce income inequality in the Illinois economy.

Organized labor plays a vital role in Illinois’ economy and communities. The Illinois labor movement, however, will continue to face both short- and long-term challenges. In the short term, there are political pressures to weaken unions through various legislative and corporate measures. Over the long term, reversing the trend of declining union membership rates remains a critical if uncertain task. Labor’s response to these challenges will define its influence and effectiveness in the decades to come.


Read the full report: The State of the Unions 2017: A Profile of Unionization in Chicago, in Illinois, and in America.

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