Employee walkouts, work stoppages and union drives seemed like a big part of 2023. But you may not know it from national data released earlier this week. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said union membership was “little changed” last year, comprising 10% of the national workforce. In 2022, it was an iota higher, 10.1%.
Rates, of course, don’t tell the whole story.
“I can say that both phenomena are true: There has been a lot of union activity over the past year and the unionization rate hasn’t changed much,” said Johnnie Kallas, director of the Labor Action Tracker, which tracks work stoppages and other labor actions nationwide. The tracker, which Kallas helped develop while at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, documented 451 labor actions in the U.S. last year, 414 in the prior year and 270 in 2021.
A key explanation? “There were nearly 200,000 more union members in 2023 than 2022, but those increases did not keep pace with considerable job growth last year, hence a stagnant or very slightly decreasing unionization rate,” said Kallas, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.
While there have been worries of a recession for the past couple of years, there was no recession in 2023. The nation’s economy grew 3.3% annually in the fourth quarter and 3.1% for the year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department update Friday. And overall job growth continued to surprise economists.
Colorado experiencing more union activity
But Colorado was different. The state’s union membership rate ticked up, at least from a low point in 2021. Last year, the number of union members increased 6.2% to 189,000 workers. Union members make up 6.9% of the state’s employed population. A year earlier it was at 6.7%, which is below the national average.
The state added 11,000 union members last year, and 13,000 in the prior year. Those included baristas at Starbucks and staff at Urban Peak, the first unionized shelter for unhoused people in Colorado. Momentum, especially among service workers, continued this month with more filing with the National Labor Relations Board to start a union, including 238 employees at the Denver Art Museum, about 180 workers from Alamo Drafthouse Cinema locations in Westminster and Denver and five at the CobbleStone Car Wash in Lakewood.
But few, if any, actually have a contract.
“It takes a tremendous amount of new organizing to translate into increased union density,” Kallas said. “In some cases, workers have made important organizing gains, but have had difficulty achieving a first contract.”
Membership has thrived at the Service Employees International Union Local 105, which has increased membership by 50% in 10 years. About 70% was new growth of workers at companies seeking representation, said Stephanie Felix-Sowy, who helped 3,000 Kaiser Permanente health workers in Colorado get a new contract after a three-day strike in October. Local 105 also represents janitors, security staff and other service workers, including more recently, about 2,000 who work at Denver International Airport.
“Colorado historically is not a super union-dense state,” Felix-Sowy said. “Being able to do that work within those particular industries has been really game changing for our members and their ability to move their priorities forward.”
After COVID, the union saw even more interest in collective bargaining. It’s currently working with home care workers and expanding its reach into airport workers. Last month, it helped organize a walkout of dozens of Denver airport cargo workers seeking safer working conditions from their employer, Swissport International.
“It’s starting to come to light and workers in these industries are fed up with seeing record profits,” Felix-Sowy said. “Even through COVID, we saw airports getting millions and millions of dollars from the government and workers not seeing that, and then a few years later, seeing record profits again. It’s just like all of these pieces, specifically in Colorado, have really led to folks looking for an outlet. I think it’s the same way that we saw generations ago.”
➔ On the other hand … union membership has been in decline for years. During the early 1950s, about one-third of private sector workers belonged to unions. Now it’s 6%. The Associated Builders and Contractors said Friday that most construction workers employed by private companies aren’t in a union. Nationally, the industry reached an all-time high of 89.3% who are not part of a union. ABC is a trade group primarily for construction companies.
Housing: Rent or buy?
With mortgage rates still above 6%, buying a house hasn’t gotten any cheaper even as sales prices halted their spectacular rise in 2021 and 2022. Interest rates, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors, “defined the 2023 housing market.”
In 2023, potential sellers held on to their homes and “stopped the move-up market where a huge percentage of current homeowners have mortgages under 3.5% and don’t want to trade that in,” said Fort Collins Realtor Chris Hardy in a CAR update.
Last year, Colorado sellers listed 81,115 single-family homes for sale. Before the pandemic, there were 108,007, according to CAR data. Even just counting the past 12 months, the number of available houses for sale — or sold — fell by double digit rates from 2022. The median sales price in 2023? Up in some parts of the state, down in others.
But in December, prices inched up again, from a year ago, with the median price of single-family houses in Colorado at $549,950, up 3.8%. Median prices for the full year, though, were down 0.7%. The townhouse and condo market was up 3% in December to $424,995, and the annual median price was unchanged at $420,000.
Home prices are still high, though, so sellers are getting more than they paid for if they’ve owned it for more than a couple of years. But it’s become more difficult for renters to save up and qualify for a mortgage. However, interest rates are expected to fall this year, at least that’s what the body that makes that decision said it will consider.
Meanwhile, rent or buy? That’s a personal question. But even with a 20% down payment on December’s median-priced house in Denver ($593,500), the monthly mortgage is more expensive than a two-bedroom rental (at $1,914 a month), according to Realtor.com’s “Rent or buy calculator.”
Here’s how the rental numbers stack up:
“Despite all the craziness around increasing costs and increasing affordability challenges that we’ve been facing, the homeownership rate in Colorado actually continues to climb steadily since 2016. In 2022, we reached 67.4%, which is the highest level since 2010,” said Cooper Thayer, a Castle Rock Realtor at Thayer Group who presented the economic update at the Colorado Association of Realtors housing market update this week. “We’re seeing the cost of buying exceed the cost of renting right now so it’s really great to see, in Colorado specifically, our home ownership rate is still on the rise despite these challenges.”
➔ Speaking of rent, don’t miss this recent rent story as part of The Sun’s “High Cost of Colorado” series: “Young Colorado renters need to choose if they’ll pay the landlord, the hospital or grandma” by Sun education reporter Erica Breunlin.
Sun economy stories you may have missed
➔ Those gig workers are employees, says Denver auditor. The flexible schedules enjoyed by gig workers isn’t what workers of Instawork and Gigpro have. Denver’s auditor said the companies misclassified the workers and must stop it and pay a $1 million penalty. >> Read
➔ Colorado officials thought they had 3 more years to spend $1.5B in federal COVID aid. They have 11 months. >> Read
➔ How hard is it for rural Colorado hospitals to hire CEOs? Ask the 24-year-old boss at the medical center in Julesburg. >> Read
➔ Colorado to offer tax credits to quantum companies. It’s part of an effort to boost the state’s chances of getting up to $75 million from the federal government to invest in the quantum industry. >> Read
➔ Many teens are rethinking college. This 87-acre campus near Colorado Springs wants to help them find careers without it. >> Read
➔ Colorado pastor accused of defrauding investors of $3M via cryptocurrency scheme. He said he got help from “the Lord.” >> Read
Other working bits
➔ $2.7 million for rural Colorado renewable energy projects. Solar arrays, rooftop photovoltaic panels and cold storage upgrades are part of the Rural Energy for America Program grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state’s $2.7 million share will help a dozen commercial projects, including helping the Estes Industries manufacturing facility in Fremont County add a solar array to save an estimated $138,550 in energy costs a year. >> List of awardees
➔ Coloradans ranked 3rd nationwide for highest monthly debt payments. But a big chunk of the $1,734 average payment is the mortgage bill, often considered good debt. Colorado residents have the sixth highest mortgage payment, at $2,222, according to the analysis by LendingTree of 310,000 anonymized credit reports. We also have one of the highest median incomes, at $87,598. >> The debt data
➔ Grand Junction HVAC company pays $180,000 to employees. Comfort Air, a heating and cooling servicer in Grand Junction, failed to pay 63 employees time and one-half in overtime pay and was ordered by the U.S. Department of Labor to pay back $180,172 in fines and back wages, which are paid to the workers. The investigation began in June and the penalty has been paid, according to the labor department. Workers can report wage violations by calling 866-4US-WAGE (866-487-9243).
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Type of Story: News
Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.