Organized Labor Is Organizing Itself

Fred Sampson

Fifty years ago, nearly a third of U.S. workers belonged to unions. Today, it’s one in 10.

But the decline has not been the same for every state. I recently read a map which shows the present membership across the country. I have listed here only those that would be of interest to this area’s readership. They are: New York, 24 percent; New Jersey, 16.5 percent; and Connecticut, 14.5 percent.

New York has the highest share of union workers in the country. The main story is the public sector: 71 percent of government workers in New York belong to unions. Nationwide, 36 percent of government employees are in unions, compared to just 7 percent of workers in the private sector.

If you are not too busy managing a business, you probably have heard that the reason for this drop is due to the North American Fair Trade Agreement. NAFTA has been a hot topic in this calamity presently taking place—more commonly described as the 2016 presidential campaign. While NAFTA is one of the reasons, there are many more. In 1964 the Midwest was full of manufacturing jobs and had the highest concentration of union workers in America. That has changed dramatically, both because the share of manufacturing jobs has fallen and fewer of the manufacturing jobs are held by union workers.

As a result of this declining situation, two of the major and most active labor groups, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union are considering ways to step up collaboration, including a merger, as reported by The New York Times.

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The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union has 1.6 million members, most of them government workers. The Service Employees International Union has approximately 2 million members and is split evenly between workers in the private and the public sectors. About 80 percent of these unions’ membership is in roughly a dozen states, including New York, California, and Illinois.

The benefits of the arrangement, officials said, would be that unions could settle on common messages and strategies rather than tugging in different directions, and they could eliminate duplication of fixed costs such as for phone banks, direct mail, and advertisements. Union officials also said they hoped the joint efforts would prevent politicians from playing one union against the other when raising money for their campaigns, a practice the unions said they found exasperating but were often powerless to stop.

Both unions are active in political campaigns. The Service Employees organization is widely seen as more innovative and willing to take risks in organizing workers.

A perfect example of the S.E.I.U.’s activities is that it has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting the $15 an hour fight which focused on the plight of fast-food workers. There is a sense that it brought no immediate benefit in the form of new members, according to The New York Times. Such benefits are a condition most traditional unions insist on when spending large sums on organizing. However, many cities and states will phase in a $15 per hour minimum wage over the coming years, which will benefit many of its members and millions of other workers.

It would seem, from this observer’s perspective, that when you take a look at the future, we as a country will continue to move to an even more consumer service–oriented society and that means more service jobs and more potential membership opportunities for unions such as the S.E.I.U. Food services and drinking establishments now represent only 1.7 percent of total workers. Historically, unions did not pursue workers in the quick-service segment. One reason was that the average age of most workers was teens and low twenties and turnover was higher. While quick-service operators still hire younger people, they now have a larger, more mature workforce, which was evident during the $15 an hour demonstrations. The unions will continue to be a force.

While jobs, the economy in general, foreign affairs, and immigration will be the focus of the campaign, two others come to mind: appointments to the Supreme Court and the makeup of the National Labor Relations Board. As you know, many of their decisions have a tremendous impact on how you conduct your business.

In light of increases in the minimum wage, the new overtime regulations, rising commodity prices, and constant government tinkering, it’s going to take an ever vigilant, focused management team to operate in this climate.

Does anyone out there appreciate and understand that we are a major job making, tax paying, risk taking, economic force? We employ 14 million people—and growing!

Fred G. Sampson
Fred G. Sampson is the retired President Emeritus of the New York State Restaurant Association. He began working with NYSRA in 1961. Within the next four years the NYSRA more than tripled its membership and expanded from one regional chapter to eight. Sampson played roles in representing restaurants on issues including paid sick leave, minimum wage, liquor laws, a state-wide alcohol training program and insurance plans. Comments may be sent to