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‘Broken’ US Labor Law Blamed for Drop in Union Membership

WASHINGTON—Union membership in the United States fell to 10.3% of the workforce in 2021, according to statistics released by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics Jan. 20. The union share slipped back to the level of 2019 after rising to 10.8% in 2020, the year when a much larger number of nonunion workers lost jobs because of the pandemic, particularly in leisure and hospitality.

Overall, 14 million workers were union members last year, a drop of 241,000 since 2020. The number of workers represented by unions was 15.8 million, 11.6% of the workforce, a decline of 137,000. And 37.6% of public-sector workers were represented by unions, down from 38.4% in 2020, while only 7% of private-sector workers were, down from 7.2%.

The AFL-CIO said the numbers “highlight the urgent need for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act.”

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clearer now than ever that our labor laws are designed to make joining a union as difficult as possible,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “If everyone who wanted to join a union was able to do so, membership would skyrocket.”

Economic Policy Institute President Heidi Shierholz made a similar point, telling reporters that while “the last year has seen a great deal of momentum” for organized labor, the decline in union membership “is a glaring testament to how broken U.S. labor law is” and how easy it is for employers to exploit it. 

The upsurge in union organizing, strikes, and pro-union sentiment didn’t translate into larger numbers, she added, because of “policy.” There are “absolutely towering barriers,” she said, with many methods of union-busting legal and minimal penalties for illegal tactics to prevent unions from winning a representation vote. If they win, employers can also stall to essentially filibuster a first contract.

The PRO Act, passed by the House in March 2021, would remedy much of that, but it would be filibustered if it were brought to the Senate floor. “Only the Senate is holding the line,” Arizona Chamber of Commerce President Danny Seiden wrote on Jan. 20, praising filibuster supporter Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for her “willingness to withstand organized labor’s ongoing pressure campaign.”

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, introduced in the House last October, would give public-sector workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively, with the Federal Labor Relations Authority authorized to intervene if employers violate the standards it set.

Demographics

A teacher in New York is far more likely to be a union member than a waitress or farmworker in South Carolina.

According to the BLS figures, unions were strongest in local government, with 40.2% of workers members and 43.9% represented by unions, both down from 2020. The most unionized occupations were in education, training, and library services, with 34.6% of workers members and 38.7% represented, and protective services such as police and firefighting, where 33.3% of workers were members and 35.5% represented.

In contrast, only 3.1% of agricultural workers and 3.5% of those doing food preparation and serving had union representation. Shierholz projected that this pattern would lead to the union share of the workforce falling again in 2022, as restaurants reopened — a “pandemic concentration effect.”

Workers aged 45 to 64 were most likely to be union members, at 13.1%, but only 4.2% of those 16 to 24 were. Men were also slightly more likely to be in unions than women, at 10.6% and 9.9% respectively. By ethnicity, 11.5% of Afro-American workers were members, followed by whites, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, of whom only 7.7% were in unions.

Union members on average made almost $200 a week more than nonunion workers, with a median of $1,169 for union jobs and $975 nonunion. The gap was widest for Latino men, where union members did almost $300 a week better.

There were sharp regional variations. In Hawaii and New York, more than 22% of workers were union members, with the other West Coast states, New Jersey, and Minnesota all over 15%. California and New York accounted for about 30% of the nation’s union members.

At the other end of the scale, only 1.7% of workers in South Carolina were union members. Less than 5% of workers were in 10 states, three in the West and seven in the South, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas.

Workers now have more market power than they’ve had in decades, Shierholz said, due to increased demand and a smaller number of people in the labor force, but that will fade as the economy recovers from the pandemic. The only way to sustain that power, she added, is through unions.

“As a result of decades of relentless attacks on the right to organize, the current unionization rate is well under half what it was roughly 40 years ago,” EPI said in its report. “Union activity last year included organizing drives with nurses, journalists, graduate students, and even Starbucks workers, as well as successful strikes by taxi drivers in New York, health-care workers in Buffalo, and factory workers at Deere. The substantial level of union activity in 2021 demonstrates that workers want and value unions.”

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