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Union membership in the U.S. declined by 241,000 workers in 2021 as federal legislation aimed at strengthening the right to organize languished in the Senate, leaving corporations with significant power to crush collective bargaining efforts.
According to figures released Thursday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall U.S. union membership fell to 10.3% in 2021—down from 10.8% the previous year—even as public approval of unions rose to its highest point in nearly six decades.
“Democrats hold the power, and now they need to use it ruthlessly and effectively to back up the working class.”
In a press release, BLS attributed the slight percentage increase in union membership in 2020 to a “disproportionately large decline in the total number of nonunion workers” amid the coronavirus pandemic, rather than a sign of growing momentum for the labor movement.
Union membership’s return to the historically low 2019 level in 2021 came in a year that also saw a number of high-profile strikes and successful organizing drives, such as Buffalo Starbucks workers’ vote last month to form the chain’s first-ever union.
According to Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker, there were more than 360 strikes nationwide over the course of 2021.
Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman, a progressive Democrat running for U.S. Senate, said in a statement Thursday that he was “proud to stand in solidarity with striking workers” in his state who “stood up against their corporate bosses for better contracts, better pay, and better benefits.”
“Their courage to strike was inspiring,” said Fetterman. “But today’s statistics should be a sobering reminder that union membership is continuing to decrease and that the percentage of workers who have a union is at an all-time low; this is a national disgrace. When this survey began in 1983, union membership was almost double what it is now.”
“Right now in Washington, Democrats hold the power, and now they need to use it ruthlessly and effectively to back up the working class,” he continued. “This means passing the PRO Act immediately, but passing the PRO Act should be the floor, not the ceiling… Union members built this country. They have had our back for years, it is past damn time that Washington finally has theirs.”
The House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in March 2021, but the Senate has yet to vote on the measure as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) refuses to sign on as a co-sponsor. If passed, the bill would help close loopholes in current labor law that allow employers to stamp out union drives.
“The decline of union membership in 2021 is a wake-up call to lawmakers that we must reform our broken labor law,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute. “The Biden administration and Congress must adopt policies that make it easier for workers to form a union, including the PRO Act.”
“Not only are these policy changes crucial to restoring a fair balance of power between workers and employers,” she added, “they are also essential to an equitable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.”
The percentage of U.S. workers belonging to a union has been steadily declining for decades as corporate America and its right-wing allies in government—as well as in the judiciary—have waged a coordinated assault on organized labor, a campaign that has included so-called “right-to-work” laws and other anti-union measures.
One recent report estimated that the erosion of union membership cost the median U.S. worker $3,250 per year between 1979 and 2017.
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said in a statement Thursday that the new BLS data “proves the union difference and shows why workers across the nation are standing up to major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, and even to cultural institutions, to form a union.”
“Yet even as workers are winning these fights for better pay and benefits… workers who want to organize confront a rigged system, particularly against deep-pocketed employers willing to lie and cheat to rob workers of their voice,” said Saunders. “Every worker deserves their fair share from the work they put in to make businesses and communities succeed. To realize that goal, Congress must make it easier to form and join strong unions.”