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2021 was a year of labor action—but it didn’t translate into more unionized workers

Despite high levels of union activity and public favorability, the number of workers in unions fell in 2021.

2021 was a year of labor action—but it didn’t translate into more unionized workers
[Image: eugenesergeev/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

In 2021, high-profile union drives like those at Amazon and Starbucks, and headline-grabbing worker strikes at companies like John Deere and Kellogg’s  (and across healthcare institutions), dominated news coverage of the year in labor. But overall, union membership continued to decline, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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It’s a reality that seems disconnected from those prominent examples of union activity and from polls that show high union favorability among workers across the country. Yet, this disconnect can be explained by the country’s outdated labor laws, which also points to the need for new labor policies, says Heidi Shierholz, president of the nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute, who served as the Department of Labor’s chief economist under the Obama administration.

“Workers want and value unions, and the fact that unionization nevertheless declined in 2021 is just a glaring testament to how easy it is for employers . . . to exploit our weak, outdated labor laws [and] thwart workers’ attempts to unionize,” she said on a press call going over an EPI report on the labor bureau numbers. “It’s a testament to how broken U.S. labor law really is.”

In 2021, 15.8 million workers in the U.S. were represented by a union, a decline of about 581,000 people from 2019. In 1979, the share of U.S. workers represented by unions was 27%. If that was still the rate today, there would be nearly 37 million unionized workers. Yet the rate of unionized workers in 2021 was 11.6%.

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When comparing the pubic to private sector, there’s a stark difference in union representation: The unionization rate in the public sector was 37.6% in 2021, and in the private sector, 7%. That rate is down from 12.1% in 2020; but that year, the pandemic had a strange effect on unionization rates, which jumped from 11.6%, largely because the share of jobs lost in 2020 were predominantly in industries that aren’t unionized, like leisure and hospitality. That job loss effectively raised the overall share of unionized employees without adding unionized jobs. That effect is now starting to reverse, as more jobs in areas also likely to be non-union came back in 2021, decreasing the overall unionization rate.

Overall, there’s still a decline in the total number of workers in unions, which dropped in 2021 by 137,000, on top of a decline of 444,000 in 2020. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of U.S. workers in unions dropped by 581,000.

“One key thing to really keep an eye on is the fact that we’re still in the middle of this recovery,” says Shierholz. “That trampoline effect is not over. We still have a lot of leisure and hospitality jobs to regain.” She expects many of those jobs to be regained in 2022, which could lower the overall unionization rate even more.

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Unions are just one way workers can have more power with regards to their employer. The other is that they can threaten to quit their job and find another. The latter has become especially strong during the pandemic, with stories from the Great Resignation and a high demand for workers via the American Rescue Act while fewer workers are available, out of the workforce due to health and safety concerns, or needing to provide care to others because of COVID-19.

But the power dynamic that comes with the threat of quitting likely won’t last post-pandemic, Shierholz says. “For lasting worker power, for lasting strong wage growth, and decent working conditions going forward, working people absolutely have to be able to join unions.”

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