Hawaii – Unions

Picture of Union Workers

By: T. Jeffersonian

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hawaii and New York continue to lead the nation in union memberships. Last year, the union membership rate in the United States was 10.8 percent– a slight increase compared to 2019. This rate increase happened despite the loss of 321,000 wage or salary unionized workers due to the pandemic. These numbers reflect disproportionate rates of job loss, as most of the jobs lost due to the pandemic were from non-unionized areas of employment. This difference refers to the reduction of 9.6 million total wage and salary employment seen in the United States in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Over 70,000 wage and salary workers lost their jobs in Hawaii during 2020. The vast majority of these Hawaiian job losses were non-union workers.

Despite the massive unemployment rates observed in 2020, Hawaii still leads the nation in union memberships, and there were even slight increases in unionized work throughout 2020. There were roughly 508,000 to 574,000 wages and salary workers in Hawaii during 2019-2020.   Just under 24 percent of these wage and salary workers – roughly 138,000 – belong to a union.  Another roughly 12,000 wage and salary workers in the state are not union members, but are represented by a union. In total, roughly 26 percent (149,000) of all wage and salary workers in Hawaii are represented by a union. Hawaii union members and their represented non-members equate to a population size larger than Maui (144,000) and is bigger than the islands’ population of active-duty and National Guard U.S. military plus their dependents (120,000). Unions are a substantial voting block with powerful influence in this state.

State government and the federal government saw their unionization rates move in opposite directions in 2020. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the union membership rates for state and local governments increased from 38.7 percent to 40.3 percent in 2020, while the federal government’s rate fell from 30.5 percent to 30 percent. Habitually, industries with lower unionization rates – such as leisure and hospitality – tend to see the most employment losses amid the pandemic, unlike industries with higher unionization rates, including the government sector. One of the key take-aways from these union membership rates is that unions provide protections against the harshest layoffs in times of economic crisis such as those seen during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Union members are able to negotiate furloughs, retirement, work sharing, and other mutually beneficial plans rather than facing immediate unemployment.  Unfortunately, this also means that jobs that would ordinarily no longer exist due to innovation and automation, are maintained far longer than what is profitably optimal. Numerous studies suggest that up to 85 percent of the jobs today’s college students will have in 11 years have not been invented yet. It may take years to fully realize Coronavirus’ lasting transformative effects on the work force. Unions, seeking to protect their members, will prove resistant to changes with the times.

North Carolina, which like Hawaii, is also led by a Democratic governor, but conversely has the nation’s lowest union membership rate at 1 percent. Coincidentally, North Carolina was also ranked by Forbes in 2019 as the most business friendly state in the Union. Hawaii ranked number 47 out of 50 in the same study. Unlike Hawaii, being primarily dependent on tourism and government business, North Carolina has a more resilient, diverse economy that is strong enough to withstand Coronavirus shutdowns.

North Carolina is a fiscal asset while Hawaii is a fiscal liability to the United States. If the Coronavirus has shown us anything, it has shown us that Hawaii has an urgent need to expand and diversify the state’s economy, to make it more resilient and self-sustaining. Unions have a big, loud voice in Hawaii and must support this urgent necessity. Waiting until the Coronavirus is over, will be too late. Despite the continuing pandemic, diversifying and rebuilding Hawaii’s state economy must begin now with union support!