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Uncovering the USA's never-unionised workers

A third of workers have never been unionised

A major analysis of workers in the United States has found that, by the time they reach the age of 40 or 41, one-third of them have never been represented by a trade union and likely will remain permanently outside the union movement.

Industrial relations experts have established a global trend away from unionisation, with membership falling in most developed countries. The issue is of great interest to the union movements around the world as they try to stem the long-term decline in their popularity. unions

In the UK, those who had never joined a union increased from less than 30 per cent in the early 1980s to nearly 50 per cent in 2001. In Germany, the figure was around 55 per cent in 2002.

Jonathan Booth of LSE's Department of Management, and John Budd and Kristen Munday of the University of Minnesota, have analysed this trend for the first time in the US. At any given time, less than 15 per cent of US workers are unionised, but the results revealed a much broader reach, in that two-thirds are unionised at some point in their working lives.

Dr Booth, whose paper was published in the British Journal of Industrial Relations, explains:

"Analysing those who are never unionised can help researchers, union leaders, and policy makers understand why some workers do not become unionised and thereby help shape future research, union strategies and public policies. Combining an understanding of the characteristics of the never unionised with the predicted trends for these characteristics can also provide clues about the future of the labour movement.

It is important to look at those who are never unionised because if fewer workers experience unionism and see the true benefits, then fewer workers support unions and union density declines."

To analyse never-unionisation in the US, Dr Booth and colleagues tracked 1,522 people through 21 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth starting when they are 15 or 16 years old in 1979 and ending when they are 40 or 41 years old in 2004.

In the United States, union representation is more closely tied to contract coverage (collective bargaining agreement coverage) than union membership. So rather than union membership, attention was focused on whether an individual was ever covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

The study found that the never unionised are significantly more likely to be women – 57 per cent. Never unionised are also more likely to work in industries and occupations that are less unionised, especially agricultural industries and managerial occupations. They have had fewer jobs and are less likely to have a parent who had a blue-collar job, and more likely to have a university-educated parent.

The never unionised are a diverse group; more likely to be high school dropouts and more likely to be university graduates. Less-educated, lower-wage workers were not unionised because of a lack of opportunities for obtaining better-paying unionised jobs. More educated, higher-wage workers were not unionised because of a lack of propensity for finding union jobs.union2

The report concludes that its findings - that two-thirds of workers have experienced unionisation - show that US labour unions represent, at some point, far more than the 15 per cent of workers who are unionised at any given time. It therefore provides an opportunity for unions to develop greater support among a larger segment of the US labour force by making sure that workers have positive experiences when they are represented, even as teenagers working at their first job in a grocery store. This will increase the chances that workers will choose to remain unionised. However, never-unionisation rates appear to be increasing so opportunities to experience unionisation are declining.


Useful links

For full details of Jonathan Booth's work, see Employment Relations and Organisational Behaviour Group