Sep 6, 2021 - Economy & Business

The labor movement is showing signs of life

Illustration of a had holding a protest sign with an American flag on it
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Labor unions represent a larger percentage of U.S. workers than at any time in the past five years, as the pandemic took its biggest bite out of non-unionized jobs.

Why it matters: America's labor movement isn't quite resurgent, but it is showing signs of life after decades of decline.

By the numbers: In 2020, 10.8% of all wage and salaried workers were members of unions, up 0.5% from 2019, according to government statistics.

  • That's the highest mark since 2015 (11.%).
  • Men were more likely than women to be in a union (11% vs. 10.5%), and the highest age cohort was 45-64 years old.
  • Black workers (11.2%) were more likely to be union members than white (10.3%), Asian (8.8%) or Hispanic (8.5%) workers.
  • A huge gap remains between public sector (34.8%) and private sector (6.3%) workers.

Caveat: The actual number of union members fell in 2020 by over 321,000, but the decline in nonunion jobs was much steeper.

What's next: The big question is whether labor unions can successfully adjust to the changing face of American work, which is becoming much more about service work than manufacturing.

  • They still face a steep uphill climb, as evidenced by last fall's failure to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and of a ballot referendum in California to change the legal status of gig economy workers like Uber drivers.
  • Labor may still win out in both cases, though, as the NLRB has recommended a revote by those Amazon workers and a California judge just struck down what was known as Prop 22. Plus, Starbucks is facing a rare unionization push in Upstate New York.

Historical reminder: Labor Day celebrates all American workers, but it was the outgrowth of organized labor marches in the late 1800s that effectively doubled as one-day strikes. It became a federal holiday 12 years after the first such march, which took place in New York City.

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