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The union landscape

Where are New Zealand unions strongest and where are they weakest? While we often focus on the fall in overall union density (the proportion of wage and salary earners who are union members), underlying that is a very uneven spread of union membership. It’s important to understand this ‘landscape’ of unionism in New Zealand if we are to strengthen membership and collective bargaining.

Looking at how union membership is made up by industry, in 2013 the public sector – health, education, and core public services – constituted almost two-thirds (62.5%) of union members. Among the other ‘market sector’ industries, manufacturing had one in eight union members (over 47,000 members or 12.9% of all unionists) and Transport, postal and warehousing almost 34,000 members, or 9.3%. History shows how patterns of union membership have changed.

While union density is high in the public sector, there are also quite respectable highs in some market sector industries. The standouts are Transport, postal and warehousing which had 35% unionisation in 2013, and Mining at 31%. But Manufacturing (at 21%) and Electricity, gas and water (18%) were at least around the overall average density – which includes the public sector – of 19%.

Most unionists are now women. In 2013, 58% of union members or 212,000 people, were female, which meant that 23% of female employees were in unions, but only 16% of male employees (154,000 union members). The proportion of women rose over the last decade. Union density has followed that, with male union density falling from 20% in 2004 to 16% in 2013, while female union density rose and fell, ending up close to where it started at 23%.

The proportion of union members in the public sector has risen steadily. Private sector union membership is only 2,752 higher than it was in 2000 (though it rose to a peak in 2006 and has fallen over 30,000 since then) while public sector union membership is 44,165 higher than it was in 2000, again with rises and a more recent fall.

While we don’t have data on union membership by firm size, we do have some data for collective bargaining. As might be expected, the incidence of collective employment agreements is higher in larger firms, with 46% reporting that at least some of their employees are covered by a collective. The proportion falls steeply with firm size, though if smaller firms do have coverage it is more likely to cover most of the employees in the firm.

Download the full bulletin: CTU Economic Bulletin 165