REPORT: Union Density Declining in Illinois, Across United States

While union workers were more likely to be deemed essential during the pandemic, early data suggests Supreme Court’s Janus decision is having effects on public sector unionization in Illinois

La Grange:  For the second straight year, the number of American workers who are members of labor unions has declined– both in Illinois and across the United States, according to new research by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI), the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and the Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Read the Report, “The State of the Unions 2020: A Profile of Unionization in Chicago, in Illinois, and in the United States.”

Analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, researchers found that while total union membership nationally has steadily fallen by more than 1% since 2010, union membership has decreased in Chicago and Illinois as well (by 9%), albeit less consistently. All three regions now have their lowest unionization rates in the last decade, and have seen their significant declines in total union members (2% nationally, 7% in Illinois, and 5% in Chicago) since 2017– the year before the Supreme Court’s controversial Janus decision, which nullified dozens of state laws requiring that public sector workers represented by unions share in the cost of collective bargaining by paying membership dues or “fair share” fees.

“In the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic and rising economic inequality, this study underscores an alarming pattern for workers in Illinois and across America,” said study co-author and ILEPI Policy Director Frank Manzo IV. “Especially when you consider that union membership is correlated with a 10% to 11% boost in worker wages on average and substantially higher rates of health insurance coverage.”

In digging into the data, researchers highlighted additional demographic and occupational trends about the unionized workforce both in Illinois and across America, concluding that African Americans, military veterans, men, and middle aged workers are more likely to be union members than women or younger workers.  However African Americans and women workers have also seen a disproportionate share of the decline in union membership over the past decade.

“While union membership continues to offer vital protections for certain workers, the data makes clear that this pool of workers is shrinking and some are disproportionately being left behind,” added study co-author and UIUC Director Dr. Robert Bruno. “For example, women and workers of color have long been overrepresented in the lowest-paying service and domestic occupations where unionization rates are low, and these workers have made up a disproportionate share of people who have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Industry-level and occupation-level analyses highlight additional disparities, with workers employed in the public sector, construction, and industries deemed essential during this pandemic more likely to enjoy the wage and benefit premiums and workplace safety measures associated with union membership.

Researchers were quick to note, however, that despite the higher likelihood of union membership in “essential” industries during the pandemic, the overall declines in union membership still meant that more than 80% of these workers are not represented by unions in Illinois. 

The report credits much of the decline in national union membership– from nearly a quarter of all workers in the 1980s to just over 10% today– to a decades-long trend in anti-union activity in state legislatures and the courts. In Illinois’ heavily unionized public sector, total union membership declined 7% since 2017, the year before the Supreme Court’s Janus decision that effectively encouraged more workers to either drop their memberships or stop paying collective bargaining fees. This is also known as “free-riding.” 

“The labor movement has and will continue to play a key role in growing wages and expanding economic opportunity for American workers,” Bruno concluded. “Yet as Illinois and the nation begin the hard work of economic recovery, sagging union membership will mean that workers will have fewer resources with which to bargain for both the benefits we’ve all come to value during this pandemic and the restoration of ladders to the middle class that have been lost over the past decade.”    

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonprofit which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families.

The Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign investigates the working conditions of workers in today’s economy to elevate public discourse aimed at reducing poverty, create more stable forms of employment, and promote middle-class jobs.