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Spring 2010

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What are the characteristics of never-unionized individuals?

THE QUESTION:

There is a large body of research examining individual decisions to unionize and the characteristics of unionized workers. Overlooked, however, are individuals who have never unionized. John Budd, Industrial Relations Land Grant Professor, along with Jonathan Booth, ’09 PhD, and HRIR PhD candidate Kristen Munday, looked at this group and presented their findings in “Never Say Never? Uncovering the Never-unionized In the United States” in the British Journal of Industrial Relations. “Prior to our research, we did not know whether this was a large or small fraction of the U.S. workforce, nor did we know its characteristics,” Budd says.

        Budd used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, a widely used survey by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The survey’s authors followed 1,522 individuals starting when they were 15 or 16 years old in 1979 until they were 40 or 41 years old in 2004. By assuming that individuals’ direct experiences with unions before age 15 or 16 was minimal, the authors constructed a unique series of never-unionized profiles by observing when each individual first became employed in a union job as they aged from 15/16 to 40/41, and then identifying those who were still never unionized at age 40/41.

THE FINDINGS:

Surprisingly, the authors found that only one-third of U.S. workers have never held a unionized job and have never been represented by a union by age 40/41. Moreover, a convex, never-unionized age trajectory suggests that most of these individuals will remain never unionized. An analysis of the demographic and labor market characteristics of the never-unionized further suggests two types of never-unionized workers: those with little education who lack opportunities for obtaining unionized jobs, and those with high levels of education who lack the desire to obtain unionized jobs. “These results have a variety of important implications,” Budd says. “They help us better understand the labor market experiences of U.S. workers over the life course.”

        Budd adds that the never-unionization rate also complements the oft-cited union density rate to create a deeper understanding of the true impact and reach of U.S. labor unions. At any given time, less than 15 percent of U.S. workers are unionized, but the paper’s results reveal a much broader reach of labor unions in the U.S. employment relationship. Union leaders also should try to understand how to better capitalize on this broad reach, while managers should better understand how their employees’ previous experiences with unionization affect their current attitudes toward work.

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