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The number of American workers who belong to unions fell in 2021

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The number of American workers who belong to unions fell in 2021

| Local News | News Today

The share of U.S. workers who belong to a union fell in 2021 to near an all-time low, according to data released Thursday by the Labor Department.

Union density in industries has fallen from 10.8% in 2020 to 10.3% last year, meaning just over one in 10 workers are now union members. The rate in the private sector fell from 6.2% to 6.1%. The rate in the public sector, where unions are much more present, fell from 34.8% to 33.9%.

In some years, unionization rates drop even as union membership increases—unions simply don’t add members as quickly as the American workforce grows. But according to the data, last year the believed the number of unionized workers also fell, by 241,000 to about 14 million.

The decline erases an increase in union density that occurred in 2020, returning to the same rate of 10.3% from 2019. That’s nearly half the rate of union density in 1983, which according to the Labor Department , is the first year with comparable data. One thinks that more than one in three American workers belonged to a union at its height in the 1950s.

The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank that studies collective bargaining, noted that the share of workers represented by a union fell significantly last year, but is simply back to pre-COVID levels. The short-lived increase in union representation in 2019 was likely the result of the pandemic economy: Jobs in largely unorganized fields like hospitality quickly disappeared, then returned last year, driving down the unionization rate.

Meanwhile, EPI chair Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist for the Labor Department, described last year’s decline as a “wake-up call” for policymakers. She urged Congress to pass the Right to Organize Protection Act, a sweeping labor law overhaul.

“The Biden administration and Congress must pass policies that make it easier for workers to form a union, including the PRO law,” Shierholz said. “Not only are these policy changes essential to restore a fair balance of power between workers and employers, but they are also essential to an equitable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.”

After years of declining membership and legislative setbacks, unions have recently seen some important factors shift in their favour. The surprisingly tight labor market has made it difficult for many employers to hire, giving workers more leverage to make demands and go on strike. Meanwhile, work-related pressures during a pandemic, with many employers ignoring safety concerns, have made many workplaces ripe for union organizing.

John Deere workers on the picket line in Iowa last year.

There have been notable successes for unions in recent times, such as the rapid organization of several Starbucks stores, with two already unionized in New York and others elsewhere lining up to join. But if unions as a whole have capitalized on the current climate, it is not yet reflected in the data.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 unions representing 12.5 million workers, said in a statement that “the data is not representative of the larger labor trends occurring across the country.” , noting the unions’ high approval rating. . A recent Gallup poll put union favor at 68%, the the highest level since 1965.

“If anyone who wanted to join a union could do so, membership would skyrocket,” Shuler said.

One factor that hasn’t changed during the pandemic is the legal process by which workers form unions, which the AFL-CIO describes as “broken.” The law provides notoriously weak penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights, prompting them to push the boundaries of what is legal as they fight union campaigns. Many workers who manage to join a union spend years trying to secure their first collective agreement.

The PRO Act would make dramatic changes to the law, creating monetary penalties for union busters, overriding state right-to-work laws and making it easier for workers to get a first contract. The bill has already passed the House, but supportive Democrats have failed to win over all of their Senate colleagues, where they hold a mere majority and face some Republican filibuster.


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