Union membership remained low in 2021, following decades of declines — but the labor movement wants to change that
- The number of workers in unions dropped in 2021 amid strikes and workers no longer settling for low-paying work.
union membershiprate, which tracks the percentage of workers who are members of a union, also went down.
In 2021, as over 100,000 workers voted to authorize strikes — and thousands took to the picket line — the number of workers in a
Meanwhile, the union membership rate, which tracks the percentage of workers who are in a union, fell to 10.3%. The union membership rate was 10.8% in 2020, an increase from the year prior. That percentage rose in 2020 because of the sheer number of workers laid off, who were mostly nonunion. BLS notes that the 2021 rate shows "a large gain in the number of nonunion workers and a decrease in the number of union workers."
Union members still earned more than their nonunion peers. BLS said that nonunion workers made $975 in median weekly earnings. Meanwhile, union members made $1,169 — meaning that nonunion workers made just 83% of union members' earnings.
Union membership is still far below the 20.1% of 1983, the first year with comparable data from BLS. In 1983, 17.7 million workers were in a union.
The decrease shows a continued trend. The number of unionized workers dropped by 321,000 between 2019 and 2020, similar in size to this year's decline. Union membership has been falling for decades, which the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute attributes in part to employers taking advantage of labor law that's in their favor, like making workers sit through anti-union "captive audience" meetings, as well as employing "union avoidance" consultants.
Meanwhile, pro-union sentiment is reaching new highs. A 2021 Gallup poll found that 68% of American approve of unions — the highest rate of approval since 1965. Approval was even higher among the youngest generation of workers, with 77% of adults ages 18-34 saying they approve of unions. And 72% of Americans with household incomes below $40,000 approve of unions.
Despite the falling numbers, union activity is on the rise
Those approval ratings — and the latest union membership numbers — come amidst a resurgence of the
Strengthening and promoting the power of union membership is a priority for the president, who formed a task force to do just that.
"I intend to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history," Biden said in September remarks. But the numbers show how far there is to go for the country to even begin to touch prior rates of union workers and membership.
Liz Shuler, the president of the country's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, previously told Insider that 2021 is just the start.
"The challenge we have in front of us is, how do we build the labor movement to meet the moment and build on all this energy and enthusiasm?" Shuler said. According to Shuler, the answer lies with young workers and the millions of Americans who will no longer settle for low-paying work.
She said that passing legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act — elements of which appeared in Democrats' Build Back Better package — could "unleash unprecedented organizing," rebalancing "the scales of the
Shuler said that her hope is for lasting change: "If we look back 100 years from now, it'd be like, this was the moment that we organized like never before and brought the opportunity for a union to every working person in the country."
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