Losses in union membership in the private sector have contributed to a dip in the overall rates of unionization across the city and state, while wages in that sector have stagnated, according to a report released on Labor Day by the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies.
In New York City, 774,000 workers belonged to a union in 2018, or just over 21 percent of the workforce, according to the U.S. Current Population Survey. Nationally, 10.5 percent of workers across the country were union members.
City Unionists Slip
New York was the state with the highest rate of union membership. But the proportion of New York City workers in a union dipped, from 25 percent in 2015. That’s mostly because of losses in union membership in the private sector, where 13 percent of workers in the city were unionized last year.

RUTH MILKMAN: No time to be complacent.
“We’re doing way better than the rest of the country, but it’s very dangerous to be complacent about that,” said the report’s co-author Ruth Milkman, a Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies and the Graduate Center. “Since unions are under so much attack right now, the priority for many is protecting what’s already there rather than organizing.”
Last year, the national unionization rate among private-sector employees was 6.4 percent, a “record low,” the report stated. And unions representing municipal employees have feared that they would be weakened by Janus v. AFSCME, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined that public-employee unions can no longer collect agency-fee payments from nonmembers. So far, the percentage of unionized public-sector workers in both the city and the state has remained fairly stable at 66 percent. Some unions have reported significant gains post-Janus, such as District Council 37, which lost 45 former members during the past year but gained 14,000 new ones.
New Jobs Low-Paid
Some figures showcased in the report that appeared to be bright spots were misleading, Ms. Milkman noted. Although employment has grown during the past decade, new jobs were “disproportionately concentrated in low-wage industries, especially in the private sector,” the report stated. Eighty-one percent of job growth in the state was in industries where the average pay was less than a living wage, including in retail, food service and social assistance.
“Everyone says ‘unemployment is low,’ but the job quality is ignored in those statements,” Ms. Milkman said. “A minimum-wage job isn’t the same as one that pays a living wage and provides benefits.”
Public-sector wages also appeared to grow more than they actually did, she added. Between 2008 and 2018, the average annual wage among public-sector workers increased 28 percent in the city, from $61,818 to $79,065 (adjusted for inflation). That contrasted sharply with the average wage for private-sector employees, which declined by 1 percent to $94,689 during that same period.
Millennial Movement
And while the data signaled strong growth in public-sector wages, the rising average salary was likely because of a more-senior workforce. “Our hunch is that the public-sector workforce isn’t expanding,” Ms. Milkman explained. “The increase is a reflection of the stagnation in hiring.”
Unsurprisingly, older workers were more likely to be in a union: 30 percent of workers in the city 55 and up belonged to union, compared to 21 percent of 25-to-54-year-olds.
But Ms. Milkman noted that among millennials, there was “a lot of activity in that age group,” pointing to last year’s Teachers’ strikes across the country, as well as pockets of young college adjuncts organizing.
In the city, female employees were slightly more likely to be unionized (23 percent were, compared to 20 percent of men) thanks to high unionization rates in predominantly female professions such as teaching and health care, while black workers had the highest union membership of any racial or ethnic group in the city, state and country.

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