August 29, 2014

Reid Wilson is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tipsheet on politics. If you have a candidate for best state, e-mail him at reid.wilson@washpost.com.

For more than a century, labor unions have been a critical constituency for the Democratic Party, while Republicans have tried to curb unions’ influence. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, if you have Monday off, you can thank those unions.

Labor Day began in New York City — a “workingmen’s holiday,” first celebrated by the Central Labor Union in 1882; in 1894, it became a national holiday.

Since then, unions’ influence has ebbed. But in New York, labor unions maintain more power, and more membership, than they do in any other state. More than a quarter of all workers in New York are represented by unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest rate in America. Alaska and Hawaii are the only other states where more than 20 percent of the workforce is represented by unions.

States with higher union membership also have higher average weekly wages: The BLS says the average weekly wage in New York in the fourth quarter of 2013 was $1,266 — 26 percent higher than the U.S. average.

And New York unions are still flexing their political muscles. The state legislature passed a minimum-wage increase in 2013, gradually raising the rate to $9 an hour by the end of 2015. Unions also put a big effort into electing progressive New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the city’s teachers union and city workers unions scored promising new contracts this year.

Labor unions’ strength in the Empire State comes from a long reliance on the manufacturing sector, from Buffalo’s steel mills to companies such as Corning Glass and Kodak, Xerox and General Electric, which maintained big factories in the Hudson Valley and in Rochester. The state was an early leader in public-sector unionization, and union organizing dovetailed with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, according to Stephanie Luce, an associate professor of labor studies at the City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies.

The New York legislature was the first to consider making Labor Day an official holiday, though Oregon’s lawmakers passed a bill first. U.S. Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) was the lead sponsor of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which permitted private-sector workers to unionize and bargain collectively. His son, Robert Wagner Jr., allowed public-sector collective bargaining when he was mayor of New York City.

Unions have a much harder time organizing in states with Right to Work laws, which allow workers to refuse to join labor groups. In four states — Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina, all of which have Right to Work laws — less than 5 percent of the workforce is represented by a union.

The major political fights over Right to Work laws and public-sector collective bargaining in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio have dented the influence unions once wielded. But those unions remain strong in New York, the best state in America to celebrate Labor Day.

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Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.
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