Organized labor in the United States has always been an urban institution. Early organizing depended heavily on the natural solidarities of workplace and neighborhood, and on the ability of urban labor unions to support one and other—through boycotts and secondary pickets, and through political bodies like City Feds or Central Labor Councils. And while the CIO shifted labor’s attention from metropolitan to sectoral organizing, its sustained successes—autoworkers in Detroit, packinghouse workers in Chicago, dockworkers in San Francisco—were still rooted in urban settings.
The relationship between urban and union density remains important. Cities facilitate organizing. This month’s fast food strikes in New York City, for example, would have been much harder to pull off—and much less visible—in New Rochelle or New Paltz. It is easier to sustain organizational victories in urban settings, where other workers, customers, and the broader public are attentive to working conditions and employer tactics. And, once organized, metro unions can make it harder for marginal employers to bid down wages; they can block the low road and pave the high road of local economic development.
But new estimates of union density in American metropolitan settings show that relationship unraveling. The first graphic below ranks 284 metropolitan areas by their 2012 union density (private, public, or all workers), and—in the second panel—shows the sectoral breakdown for each of those metro areas. The second graphic maps private sector employment and union density across all (continental) metro areas.
In some respects, the results are unsurprising. The densest union settings remain clustered in the Northeast, the Rustbelt, and California. Reflecting the importance of public sector unionism, some of the strongest overall union settings are state capitals: Lansing, Olympia, Sacramento, and so on. And the weakest union presence—especially evident on the map—can be found in the “right-to-work” settings of the Deep South and Mountain West.
But the metro advantage is also surprisingly weak. More than half (155 of 284) of the nation’s metros have a private sector union density below the national rate of 6.2 percent. Indeed, union strength—in terms of overall numbers and density—is largely vested in ten or twelve northern and western cities (use the slider on the map to narrow the range of cites by the number of union members). Unions are not thriving in cities, but they are hanging on where they claim some historic organizational base.
There are a number of things going on here. For starters, the city of 2012 is clearly different from the city of 1935 or 1955. It is thinner, less urban in form, and—as a consequence—less able to sustain solidarity. Metropolitan St. Louis, to cite one example, had a population of just under two million in 1960, spread over four counties and about 2,000 square miles. By 2010, the metro population was still under three million, but the metro area now sprawled across seventeen counties and over 9,000 square miles—for a population density (about 325 persons/square mile) a third of what it had been a generation ago.
In turn, the occupational base of those cities has changed dramatically. Deindustrialization has devastated the Rustbelt: in just the last twenty-five years, cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee have lost anywhere from a third to three-quarters of their unionized manufacturing jobs. In some settings (as in much of the Northeast) such losses have been accompanied by an equally dramatic surge in (largely non-union) service employment. And many of nation’s newer metro areas, especially in the South and the Sunbelt, have been postindustrial settings all along.
For all of these reasons, as Enrico Moretti and others have suggested, the generic economic advantages enjoyed by cities (and their workers) have given way to stark differences among them. While some may be able to thrive as hubs of innovation and high-wage employment, others are likely to slip further and further behind. And as the gaps between cities widen, so too do the gaps within cities: economic segregation—the physical, political, and social isolation of the rich and poor—is starker now than it has ever been.
In this world, a little bit of new organizing—hinted at by recent action in big-box retail and fast food—could make a big difference. And it could make a big difference not just for the workers directly involved, but for the economic vitality and equity of the cities in which they live.
Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.