WCI, Inc
Jan. 26, 2022

Union Membership Rates

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released the latest numbers on unionization in the United States, finding that in 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions continued to decline (-241,000) to 14.0 million, and the union membership rate was 10.3 percent. That rate is down from 10.8 percent in 2020, when the rate increased due to a disproportionately large decline in the total number of nonunion workers compared with the decline in the number of union members.

What do the numbers really tell us? According to the AFL-CIO, this latest data shows that U.S. labor laws are broken because the statistics are inconsistent with the current trend of workers favoring unions. The union federation supports legislation that would encourage unionization.

It’s no secret that the Biden Administration would also like to see more unionization. In a move that may help that cause, the Department of Labor has announced a “Good Jobs” initiative that will, among other things, “create access to good union jobs.”

Pandemic effect on data. BLS included a cautionary note about interpreting these latest unionization statistics in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the labor market. “Comparisons with union membership measures for 2020, including metrics such as the union membership rate and median usual weekly earnings, should be interpreted with caution,” BLS said. The 2020 onset of the pandemic led to an increase in the unionization rate due to a disproportionately large decline in the number of nonunion workers compared with the decline in the number of union members. The 2021 decrease in the unionization rate reflects a large gain in the number of nonunion workers and a decrease in the number of union workers.

Same rate as 2019, half of 1983 rate. Notably, the 2021 unionization rate is the same as the 2019 rate (10.3 percent). Comparing the current rate to 1983 (the first comparable data collection available), the difference is substantial, though, with the current rate just more than half that of the 20.1 percent unionization rate in 1983, which saw 17.7 million union workers.

Data highlights. The key highlights from the 2021 BLS data include:

  • Public/private. The union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than the rate of private-sector workers (6.1 percent).
  • Highest rates. The highest unionization rates were among workers in education, training, and library occupations (34.6 percent) and protective service occupations (33.3 percent).
  • Men/women. Men continued to have a higher union membership rate (10.6 percent) than women (9.9 percent). The gap between union membership rates for men and women has narrowed considerably since 1983, when rates for men and women were 24.7 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively.
  • Racial demographics. Black workers remained more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers.
  • Earnings. Nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 83 percent of earnings for workers who were union members ($975 versus $1,169). (The comparisons of earnings are on a broad level and do not control for many factors that can be important in explaining earnings differences).
  • By State. Among states, Hawaii and New York continued to have the highest union membership rates (22.4 percent and 22.2 percent, respectively), while South Carolina and North Carolina continued to have the lowest (1.7 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively).

AFL-CIO cites broken labor laws. The AFL-CIO had its own take on what the 2021 BLS data means, saying it makes clear that U.S. labor law “are unquestionably broken.” The union federation said that although the BLS report showed a 0.5 percent drop in union membership from 2020–2021, “the data is not representative of the greater union trends taking place across the country,” and that the statistics “highlight the urgent need for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act.”

Among other things, the AFL-CIO pointed to a 2021 Gallup poll conducted from August 2-17, 2021, which found that union approval was at its highest level in more than 50 years, with 68 percent of Americans supporting organized labor, including 77 percent of young people.

“In 2021, workers forcefully rejected low-wage, thankless jobs after a year of being called essential,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “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.”

PRO Act. The controversial PRO-Act (H.R. 842), supported by both the AFL-CIO and the Biden Administration, cleared the House in March 2021 by 225-206 vote that saw five Republicans voting for the legislation along with Democrats, less one who voted against it. The bill has not advanced further than committee assignment in the Senate.

Among other things the PRO Act would:

  • Revise the definitions of employee, supervisor, and employer to broaden the scope of individuals covered by fair labor standards;
  • Allow labor organizations to encourage union member participation in strikes initiated by employees represented by a different labor organization (i.e., secondary strikes);
  • Prohibit employers from bringing claims against unions that conduct such secondary strikes;
  • Permit collective bargaining agreements to require all employees represented by the bargaining unit to contribute fees to the labor organization for the cost of representation, notwithstanding a state law to the contrary;
  • Expand unfair labor practices to include prohibitions against replacement of, or discrimination against, workers who participate in strikes;
  • Make it an unfair labor practice to require or coerce employees to attend employer meetings designed to discourage union membership; and
  • Prohibit employers from entering into agreements with employees under which employees waive the right to pursue or join collective or class-action litigation.

Those who oppose the PRO Act have cited, among other things, the burdens that it would impose on small business franchises (see PRO Act: Helping workers but hurting the small business franchise model? July 23, 2021). Of particular concern are the legislation’s joint employer and independent contractor provisions, which according to the International Franchise Association, would alone “steal the American Dream of business ownership from countless entrepreneurs.”

Pro-labor Biden Administration. President Biden has made clear his pro-labor inclination. At the DOL, Secretary of Labor Mary Walsh’s background is firmly rooted in union advocacy. On January 21, 2021, he announced the “Good Jobs” initiative, intended to improve job quality across the United States. The initiative will provide critical information to workers, employers, and government entities as they seek to improve job quality and create access to good union jobs—free from discrimination and harassment—for all workers and job seekers.

Good Jobs initiative. Unveiling the Good Jobs initiative at a keynote address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Secretary Walsh said: “We are focused on empowering all workers—morning, noon and night—all your communities. Morning means addressing the care needs of workers and their families, so they can go to work and thrive in their jobs. Empowering workers at noon—during the workday—means fair wages, safety and equity in the workplace, and access to training opportunities and career advancement. And at night, workers need peace of mind—so we protect health care coverage, retirement security, and unemployment insurance that’s there when you need it.”

The DOL said that the Good Jobs initiative will focus on empowering working people by:

  • Providing workers with easily accessible information about their rights, including the right to bargain collectively and form a union.
  • Engaging employer stakeholders as partners to improve job quality and workforce pathways to good jobs.
  • Supporting partnerships across federal agencies, and providing technical assistance on grants, contracts, and other investments intended to improve job quality.

One umbrella. The initiative will put job quality goals under one umbrella. While advancing job quality for all people also emphasizes BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, veterans, people with disabilities and individuals in rural communities, the Good Jobs Initiative will coordinate work done from the beginning of the Biden Administration, and often for decades before, under one umbrella to promote good jobs. Consistent with applicable legal authority, the Good Jobs initiative will ensure that workers, employers, and other agencies continue to have access to these resources in building job quality standards and equitable pathways to those jobs.

“The President has made the creation of good jobs with the free and fair choice to join a union a cornerstone of this administration,” said Secretary Walsh. “The Good Jobs initiative, in partnership with the White House, will help to deliver on that promise.”

Source: Written by Pamela Wolf, J.D.

From WCI's HR Answers Now ©2022 CCH Incorporated and its affiliates. All rights reserved.

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