By Karl Henkel
Gary Davenport admits his story isn’t unique.
He grew up in Youngstown as a child of an autoworker; his father has been an auto-assembler and member of United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the General Motors Co. Lordstown plant since 1976.
But Davenport himself has never worked as a union member, private or public.
His work in information technology and, later, in higher education never warranted union participation, which felt a bit foreign to Davenport in the early days of his career.
“I was pretty young, and my job was so different from my father’s,” he said. “I didn’t have a good concept of working without a union.”
And while Davenport’s story may not be anything special, it does represent the monumental shift that has taken place in the Mahoning Valley during the past 20 years.
Children who grew up in union-led households are more likely to work nonunion jobs. It’s especially true for those with parents or grandparents who worked in the private sector.
The Valley, once a union metropolis, is seeing that title fade away. In these days of the debate over Issue 2/Senate Bill 5, union support is one way to determine likely outcomes.
Issue 2, if passed, would curb some collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
The trend, however, is tilted away from union membership.
In 1990, one in three area workers — both private and public sector — was a union employee.
In the private sector, which has and always will outnumber its public-sector counterparts, about 33 percent were union employees.
In the public sector, nearly half belonged to a union.
Twenty years later, the landscape has changed.
Nearly half of public-sector workers belong to unions, but in the private sector, that number drops to 10 percent.
It’s had a profound impact on the total percentage of union members as a percentage of the overall population.
In 2010, according to a UnionStats.com study by Barry Hirsch, Georgia State University and David Macpherson, Trinity University, just 13 percent of the Valley’s working population belongs to a union.
It’s been the same nationwide, where in 1990, 11.9 percent of private-sector workers were unionized, compared with just 6.9 percent in 2010.
During that same time period, public-sector unionization numbers haven’t changed; in fact, they’ve remained steady at about 36 percent for the past 30 years.
Lockwood Reynolds, assistant professor of economics at Kent State University, said the auto-manufacturing landscape is one of the best examples as to why private-sector union rates have shrunk.
“In it’s heyday, there was the Big Three and the only three, practically,” said Reynolds, referring to Detroit automakers General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group, LLC. “There was a monopoly-type power.”
But as foreign auto manufacturers started inundating U.S. consumers, the competition grew, and the industry power weakened.
“When you have more competition within industries and it makes it more competitive and more difficult to unions to bargain and negotiate,” Reynolds said.
Auto manufacturing, or any manufacturing industry, is still heavily unionized, but the industry has become much more automated, and the overall workforce has dropped.
The United Auto Workers has gone from a record-high 1.5 million members in 1979 to fewer than 400,000 in 2010.
In the Valley, the GM Lordstown plant employed about 12,000 in the 1970s; it is home to about 4,500 employees today.
“Technology has made it easier to produce the same volume that we did in the 60s and 70s with more people,” said Jim Graham, president of UAW Local 1112, who said membership is one third of the level it was 25 years ago.
“A lot of our work was shipped overseas,” he said. “Those were the people that were organized.”
Another factor at play: women in the work force.
Reynolds said as jobs opened up after World War II, women scooped those up in droves, but opted for nonunionized jobs.
At the same time, however, public-sector unions percentages have remained constant because of the non competitiveness.
Reynolds said as long as increased competition and international trade and deregulation continue, the percentage of union workers in the private sector is unlikely to change.
“There could be a time in the future where there could be a rise again,” he said. “But if none of that stuff is going to change, then there’s no reason to expect an increase in private sector unionization.”