Opinion

It’s nothing new to see Maine’s union workers disappearing

By Matthew Gagnon

“Maine’s union membership is on the decline,” read the headline in the Bangor Daily News on Monday. 

The story, which cited statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed that the percentage of Maine workers who were in a union had dropped from 14.7 percent in 2020 to 9.2 percent in 2022. According to the data, there were roughly 82,000 union workers in the state at their recent peak three years ago, and there are only 48,000 remaining today. 

To many, this was alarming and unexpected. While union membership in the United States is at an all-time low, and has been on a slow and precipitous decline since 1954, seeing such a sharp decline over a short period of time in Maine was surprising. It certainly raised my eyebrow and piqued my interest, causing me to look into the issue a bit more.

It turns out that upon further analysis, the story is not entirely accurate. 

To understand why, we first need to understand the underlying data used in the article, which comes from the Current Population Survey. This is a monthly survey of households by the federal government that collects information on many economic and demographic categories. It is essentially a poll, though admittedly a big one that samples roughly 60,000 individuals per month.

It is not genuine observational data collected by the government. Small statistical aberrations in the survey results can have major implications for statistical estimates and conclusions it draws. That is exactly what happened in this case. Small response changes produced inaccurate numbers.

Fortunately, BLS publishes another, much larger survey — approximately 122,000 businesses and government agencies, rather than households — that produces what is known as Current Employment Statistics. This is what forms the backbone of the employment numbers we see reported every month, and is far more accurate than the CPS survey. The average number of seasonally adjusted, nonfarm workers in Maine during 2022 was 639,208, according to the CES, not the 527,000 that the CLS claims. 

More importantly, though, we need to get a real sense of how many unionized workers there are yearly in Maine to see how that number has changed over time. To do that, we can turn to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards. 

According to its reports, which include real reports of union membership rolls, the actual number of union workers in Maine in 2022 was 58,597, not 48,000. 

With the adjustment to the total workforce number cited earlier, this actually represents 9.2 percent of the Maine workforce, just as was claimed in the BDN article. However, where the CPS claims this number is a massive drop from just two years prior, the reality is that the share was 10.16 percent in 2020, 9.89 percent in 2018 and 10.04 percent in 2016, according to OLMS data. Hardly the implosion implied by CLS data.

Now, union membership is declining in Maine, but that erosion has been very slow and very gradual. The share of union workers was actually 13.62 percent in the year 2000, and unions were able to maintain themselves at roughly that level all the way until 2015. But the big drop in membership wasn’t between 2020 and 2022, but between 2015 and 2016, when the rate went from 12.29 percent to 10.04 percent in just a single year. 

Ever since then, unions have been holding between 9 percent and 10 percent every year.

Why is any of this important? Because in economics and in politics, we use data to create our perception of the world around us, and make decisions accordingly. But the type of information we consume and interpret — even when it comes from the same government agency — matters a great deal, and can give very different impressions of what is happening. This, in turn, can give us a warped sense of reality, and cause us to react in ways that are not reflective of that reality.

And the reality in Maine? Union membership has indeed been declining, as the BDN piece stated, but there has not been a recent and catastrophic collapse. The loss of union jobs is part of larger macroeconomic trends that have been taking place over the last 60 or 70 years, having more to do with the changing economy.

Put another way: There’s nothing sudden, unusual or alarming happening. But if you aren’t careful, it can easily look like there is.

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