Crain's Detroit Business: Marick Masters on union membership trends

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Despite Michigan employers shedding roughly 487,000 jobs in 2020, union membership grew slightly across the state, according to data released this month by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership in Michigan grew to an estimated 604,000 in Dec. 2020, up 2.5 percent from 589,000 in December 2019, according to federal data. Union membership in Michigan last rose in 2017, but has generally followed a downward trajectory for decades. In 1989, more than 1 million Michigan workers were union members. Michigan was one of 23 states that saw union membership increase in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic's hollowing out of the U.S. labor force. As of Jan. 2, nearly 16 million Americans were on some form of unemployment benefits and hundreds of thousands more left the workforce entirely in 2020. Nationally, 14.3 million people in the U.S. belonged to a union in 2020, down by 321,000 or 2.2 percent from 2019. The union growth in Michigan is particularly confounding given the state lost nearly 100,000 jobs in union-heavy sectors last year, including roughly 62,000 in manufacturing and 31,000 in the trade, transportation and utilities sector. Despite membership gains, there's little reason to think it will change the long-term trend of declining union membership, said Marick Masters, former director of Wayne State University's labor relations department and current interim chair of the university's department of finance and business professor. Federal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided funding to employers to retain employees, and other job-saving programs during the pandemic likely offset larger declines in union membership throughout the year, Masters said. "Basically, labor's situation in Michigan shows a resiliency in that it held steady during very turbulent times, but it is important to note that considerable effort was made to cushion of the impact of COVID-19, which avoided layoffs in certain industries otherwise bolstered employment," Masters said. "There is nothing in the data to suggest that there is looming turnaround or reversal in store for labor's position in the workforce, which has shown decades of decline."

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