Feb 3, 2021 - Economy

The pandemic-era union renaissance

illustration of hands in fist wearing medical gloves

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic walloped the job market, but it might have strengthened unions.

The big picture: Even though the pandemic brought historic job losses, the share of U.S. workers who are union members rose half a percentage point to 10.8%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Friday.

  • That's because union members held onto their jobs at higher rates than non-union members. "There's some evidence that unions did a good job at protecting their members from layoffs, compared with the non-union sectors," says John Logan, a U.S. labor historian at San Francisco State University.

Why it matters: The pandemic exposed the ugly ways in which workers — especially those on the low end of the wage spectrum — are treated. And that has revitalized the appeal of unions and underscored the importance of worker voices.

What's happening: Unions have been losing power in the U.S. for decades now. But a number of factors are coming together and setting the stage for a union renaissance.

  • Interest in unions has been steadily rising among workers. According to survey research by MIT's Tom Kochan, the share of non-union U.S. workers who would vote to join one jumped from 32% in 1995 to 48% in 2017.
  • "The labor movement has shown signs of life in recent years," Logan says. "Plenty of inspiring stories, such as domestic workers, car wash workers, online media workers and more."

And more recently, unions have started showing up in new and unlikely places. Google workers formed one. And Amazon warehouse workers are getting closer to forming one in Alabama.

  • That would be especially significant because Amazon has earned a reputation as "one of the world's most powerful and most anti-union corporations," Logan says.
  • On top of all of that, President Biden has said he'll be "the most pro-union president you've ever seen."

Go deeper: The pandemic exposed workers' lack of power

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