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Unions still have standing in Buffalo Niagara region

Manufacturing may no longer be king, but Buffalo still is a union town.

Workers here are roughly twice as likely to belong to a union than they are nationally, even though Western New York has not been immune to the trend toward declining unionization in the workplace that has been taking place across the country for the past 30 years.

While just one of every nine workers across the country belongs to a union, organized labor has a much stronger foothold in the Buffalo Niagara region, where more than one of every five workers is a union member.

But union membership in the Buffalo Niagara region still is about 50 percent lower than it was 30 years ago – and that decline is one of the reasons why wage growth has been so lackluster, according to a new study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

That study concluded that the steep drop in union membership nationwide has had a big effect in holding down wages across the country. Average wages for male workers in the private sector would be about 5 percent, or $52 a week, higher if union membership was the same in 2013 as it was it 1979. That works out to an extra $2,704 a year in pay for private sector male workers, assuming that union membership hadn’t declined from 34 percent in 1979 to 11 percent in 2013.

For women, the impact is much smaller – wages would be 2 percent to 3 percent higher – mainly because women weren’t as unionized as men in 1979. About 6 percent of private sector women workers belong to a union today, compared with 11 percent among men.

The study’s authors – Washington University sociologists Jake Rosenfeld and Patrick Denise and Columbia University researcher Jennifer Laird – said unions help keep upward pressure on wages for two main reasons:

• Unions often are able to negotiate higher wages for their members.

• Nonunion employers often raise the pay of their own employees to keep them from leaving or to ward off a union organizing drive. Beyond that, when union workers got raises at one company, their non-union supervisors tended to get them, too, just to maintain the existing wage gap.

The impact that union-backed pay raises have on non-union workers shouldn’t be underestimated, Rosenfeld said.

“Strong unions mean higher wages for union members and non-union members alike,” he said. “Unions keep wages high for non-union workers.”

That influence is reflected in the push to raise the minimum wage in some states, including New York, where labor unions were active backers of the increase, even if their members didn’t stand to benefit directly, Rosenfeld said.

But that wage pressure from unions is waning as membership declines, even in a union hotbed like the Buffalo Niagara region, offset in part by the ongoing trends toward globalization and automation, Rosenfeld said.

Here’s a closer look at the strength of the labor movement in the Buffalo Niagara region, according to new statistics from, a website compiled by researchers Barry Hirsch from Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University using data from the federal government and U.S. Census Bureau.

• Thanks to a strong foothold in private sector work, union membership in the Buffalo Niagara region is almost double the national average, Since 1986, union membership in the Buffalo Niagara region has dropped to around 21.1 percent last year, compared with 32.7 percent 30 years ago.

But even with that decline, the Buffalo Niagara region remains a stronghold for union membership, compared with the rest of the country, where just over 11 percent of all workers are unionized, down from 17.5 percent in 1986.

• The strength of the local union movement is in the public sector, where 63 percent of all government workers belong to a labor union in the Buffalo Niagara region. That’s almost double the national average of 35 percent, according to data and national statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite the erosion of the labor movement during the past three decades, public sector union membership in the Buffalo Niagara region has held fairly steady, although the membership rates can be subject to significant swings from year-to-year because of small sample sizes.

More detailed local data on union membership isn’t available, but nationally, the two groups with the highest unionization levels were protective service occupations – which includes police officers, firefighters and security guards – and education, training and library occupations. Both had union membership rates of more than 35 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

• While public sector union membership in the Buffalo Niagara region has been fairly stable, the same can’t be said for the private sector, where union membership last year was about half what it was 30 years ago, dropping to 13.6 percent in 2015 from 26.1 percent in 1986. Even so, private sector union membership here is more than double the national average of 6.7 percent, according to the data. That’s less than half of the 14 percent of all private sector workers who belonged to labor unions in 30 years ago.

• The biggest decline in union representation from 2000 to 2014 was in installation, maintenance and repair occupations, according to the Pew Research Center. That category includes a wide range of occupations, from auto mechanics to avionics technicians and watch repairers.

• Not surprisingly, the decline in manufacturing across the United States is one of the big reasons for the big drop in union membership. Factories used to be hotbeds of union activity – and representation still is strong at the Buffalo Niagara region’s auto plants, for instance. But there are a lot fewer of those jobs than there used to be.

In 2000, 19 percent – or 2.1 million – of the 11.1 million Americans in production occupations were union members. By 2014, total employment in those occupations had dropped by 3 million, and just 13.2 percent – or 1.1 million workers – belonged to a union, according to Pew.

• The local numbers mirror the statewide trend in New York – the most heavily unionized state in the nation, with 24.7 percent of all workers belonging to a union.
In each sector, union membership statewide is higher than it is in the Buffalo Niagara region. In the private sector, 15.9 percent of all workers statewide belong to a union. In the public sector, 68.6 percent are members of a union.


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