GAP CLOSING BETWEEN UNION, NONUNION WAGES

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Plastics workers often have been considered the poorer cousins of their heavily unionized counterparts in the steel and automotive industries. They traditionally have been less-unionized as well.

Statistics show plastics workers' wages are lower than workers in industries with stronger labor organizations. But the gaps are closing.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on nondurable goods manufacturing as a whole:

Union membership decreased in 1996 compared to 1995 from 1.29 million to 1.23 million.

The percentage of unionized workers decreased from 15.9 percent to 15.4 percent.

Unionized workers made more money than nonunion counterparts, but the earnings gap decreased in 1996. The median income last year for full-time union workers was $510 per week, compared to $453 for nonunion. In 1995 those numbers were $506 and $438, respectively.

The BLS uses a median (half above, half below) instead of an average because the census puts a ceiling on the maximum weekly income it records. Average weekly earnings would be higher if the cap was not in place.

Plastics workers in the SIC 308 code in 1995 earned an average of $512 per week at $12.01 per hour, according to the Union Membership and Earnings Data Book by Florida State University professors Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson. Hirsch and Macpherson use the same census data as the BLS to come up with their analysis. They compute average instead of median weekly earnings by estimating what workers who earn above the census's ceiling make. That is why their numbers do not match similar-sounding figures from the BLS.

Plastics workers' weekly pay increased 6.4 percent between 1985 and 1995, from $481 at $11.51 per hour to $512 at $12.01 and hour, based on Hirsch and Macpherson's numbers.

Taken together, nondurable goods makers earned an average of $548 per week at $13.02 per hour in 1995, compared to $530 at $12.98 in 1985, Hirsch and Macpherson report.

Industries with heavier union involvement paid employees more during those same years, but their earnings and union membership figures fell during the period.

Autoworkers — among the most heavily unionized industrial employees — earned an average of $694 per week at $15.67 per hour in 1995. Those numbers represent a decline from $733 per week and $17.14 per hour in 1985. Union membership in the industry also fell from 57 to almost 43 percent in those 10 years.