Several decades ago, construction work throughout the United States could not be done by non-union labor. If a job owner wanted to get their project completed, they had to pay union rates or risk never seeing their building rise up to the sky. However, as labor laws have changed and allowed more non-union options, many people see the disappearance of unions as a sign that labor unions could be gone soon.
Is America losing its unions, or is this just a phase in the history of American labor?
The Labor Unions Drop Is Considerable
Back in 1954, construction work was done almost exclusively by unions. If job owners did not want to pay union rates, then their jobs never got done. Fast forward to 2014, job owners do not have to pay those higher wages if they don’t want to, as non-union companies have the same opportunities to jobs as union companies do.
According to the Aspen Institute, union membership among hourly and salaried American workers dropped by 23.7 percent from 1954 to 2014.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the number of unionized workers fell from 17.7 million workers in 1983, down to 14.8 million in 2015. When you factor in the increase in population during those 32 years, you can start to appreciate the magnitude of losses being experienced by labor unions.
Why Are Unions Disappearing?
According to Construction Dive, the reason that unions are disappearing is a simple matter of economics. On average throughout the country, union labor causes an increase of between 20 to 25 percent in job costs because of higher wages. In the United States, the average union worker makes $1,099 per week, while a non-union worker makes approximately $743 per week.
Aside from higher wages, unions also offer health benefits that no longer exist in the construction industry. A significant portion of a union worker’s weekly pay goes towards benefits, which is something non-union companies do not offer. Since experts agree that union workers do not offer 20 to 25 percent more productivity, it becomes financially impossible for job owners to hire a union shop over a non-union company.
Unions Are Finding Their Niche
Despite the numbers, there are still a large number of job owners who prefer to pay the extra premium for union workers. A large percentage of these job owners indicate that employee training is the primary reason for their preference. Not only do unions offer employee training for safety and equipment operation, but they are also offering high-tech training that gives workers some of the skills needed to design and manage jobs.
Another bonus for unions is that turnover is usually very low, which means that projects are going to get done on time. When a union crew stays together for years, they learn how to work together to deliver quality work at a much faster pace than non-union companies. But that familiarity and reliability is still not enough to get some job owners to look past the higher union rates.
The Future Of Unions
Federal projects still utilize union labor, and prevailing wage laws dictate that larger projects must pay union wages. For the owners of larger projects, it makes sense to benefit from the quality of union work if they are going to have to pay union wages anyways. When you get outside of federal and large-scale projects, the influence of unions continues to dwindle.
Unions understand the challenges they are facing, and some are attempting to meet those challenges by banding together and creating bulk discounts for job owners. In some states, job owners can get discounted union labor if they agree to use all union workers for their jobs. This discount idea and a push by unions to open up recruiting to anyone instead of maintaining their generational membership practices are helping unions to survive for the time being.
Labor unions helped to build the middle class, and the disappearance of unions is going hand-in-hand with the destruction of the middle class. Union organizers are confident that workers will see the value unions offer and start to move back towards the union way of life. But at the same time, unions also realize that they have to change their own culture if they want to survive for many years to come.