‘Our labor laws are designed to make joining a union as difficult as possible’: Fewer workers are unionized, even as pandemic shines light on poor working conditions

Irina Baranova

The number of unionized workers in the U.S. slipped in 2021, according to Labor Department numbers released Thursday, continuing a decades-long slide for organized labor even as the pandemic has put worker discontent over pay and working conditions on stark display.

Just over 14 million wage and salary workers belonged to a labor union last year, a 241,000 drop from 2020, according to the BLS. A different measure showed 15.8 million workers with union representation, a scenario where someone could be represented by an organized bargaining unit but not be a dues-paying member. The 15.8 million tally is 137,000 fewer workers with union representation compared to 2020.

The share of workers in unions compared to the general workforce dropped to 10.3% from 10.8% in 2020, but researchers noted 2020’s rate was influenced by the outsized drop in non-union workers as the economy reeled from the pandemic.
Last year’s 10.3% union membership rate matches the pre-pandemic rate in 2019. Back in 1983, the first year for comparable date, the union membership rate was 20.1%.

Even as union membership declines, union members are getting better pay than their non-unionized counterparts. Unionized workers made $1,169 in median weekly pay versus $975 for non-unionized workers, the data showed.

Unions remain far more prevalent in the public sector than in the private sector, the data showed. Yet last year saw some notable unionization efforts inside businesses. In December, workers at a Buffalo, N.Y. Starbucks
voted to unionize and workers at other Starbucks locations are now making organizing pushes. Meanwhile, a flurry of worker protests during the fall at businesses including John Deere
and Kaiser Permanente had observers calling it “Striketober.”

Earlier in 2021, workers voted against unionization inside an Amazon fulfillment center in Alabama dubbed “BHM1.” The National Labor Relations Board ordered a re-vote, which is scheduled to start in February, after union organizers alleged the tech giant put undue pressure on workers, making for an unfair vote.

A spokeswoman for Amazon
said, “Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the [Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union] last year. We look forward to our team in BHM1 having their voices heard again.”

representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some polls show public opinion warming up to unions. More than two-thirds of Americans (68%) approved of labor unions last year, according to a Gallup poll in September. That’s the poll’s biggest thumbs up for organized labor since 1965, when 71% approved of labor unions. The 68% approval rating is up from 65% one year earlier.

“The substantial level of union activity in 2021 and the polling data on union favorability demonstrate that workers want and value unions,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “The fact that unionization nevertheless declined in 2021 is just a glaring testament to how easy it is for employers who oppose unions to exploit our weak, outdated labor laws.”

“In 2021, workers forcefully rejected low-wage, thankless jobs after a year of being called essential,” said Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO. “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. Across this country, workers are organizing for a voice on the job and millions of Americans are standing in solidarity with union members on strike. If everyone who wanted to join a union was able to do so, membership would skyrocket.”

Others have seen it differently.

The decline in union ranks reflects the economy’s increasing shift away from manufacturing to more service sector jobs that are harder to unionize for a range of factors like high turnover, said Daniel Disalvo, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute and a political science professor at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.

When critics say the low union numbers reveal flaws in the current labor laws, “there’s something to that of course,” Disalvo said. But it’s not clear to him that law changes facilitating labor organizing are the way to go. “Making organizing easier sound nice, but it often has a strong element of coerciveness when you get down to the reality.”

Right after the initial ‘no’ vote at the Alabama Amazon fulfillment center, Michael Strain, an economist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, previously said the outcome showed any allure of unionization paled compared to the promise of good pay and benefits that workers already had.

To be sure, the economy’s labor shortage is making it a job-seeker’s market that’s prompting employers to boost wages.

Last year, the Democrat-majority House of Representatives passed the PRO Act, which would give new protections to workers trying to unionize and penalize companies that violated workers’ rights. President Joe Biden supports the bill, which has stalled in the Senate.

Days before the new numbers on union rates, Biden’s Labor Secretary, Martin Walsh, said in a Barron’s interview that he thinks there’s likely going to be more union organizing going forward. “For many years, the word ‘union’ was a dirty word in America. It shouldn’t be a dirty word,” he said.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have opposed the PRO Act which, they say, would give unions far too much sway over workers. For example, the bill would basically usurp state laws that forbid employment contracts requiring workers to pay union dues and fees, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The new numbers on union membership put extra emphasis on the need to pass the bill, according to Shuler at the AFL-CIO, and also Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, a union with 1.4 million members. “Good pay and benefits are not just for the very top; every worker deserves their fair share from the work they put in to make businesses and communities succeed,” Saunders said in a statement.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers come when worker protection rules are keenly front of mind for many people, policymakers and courts.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court blocked a federal agency’s vaccination-or-testing mandate for employers with more than 100 people. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulations could have affected 84 million private sector workers. The justices let a federal vaccine requirement proceed for most healthcare workers.


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