Updated Jan 23, 2023 - Economy

Why labor's surging popularity isn't translating to union membership

Share of wage and salary workers represented by unions, 2022
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Union support hit near-record levels last year, with high-profile organizing at Amazon and Starbucks grabbing headlines. Yet at the same time union membership hit an all-time low in 2022.

Why it matters: The shortcomings can be pinned on a powerful mix of forces: institutional labor's missteps, well-funded corporate pushback, and weak federal/local laws have all helped suppress U.S union membership.

Driving the news: Data from the Labor Department, out last week, showed that despite an increase of 273,000 new unionized workers in 2022, union membership as a share of the workforce is at an all-time low.

Between the lines: Critics say that Big Labor hasn't adapted to the new realities of business in the modern era, nor have they given enough support to grassroots workers who are organizing on their own.

  • "Part of the fault is on the labor movement," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "They're organizing the same way they always have," she added.
  • For years in the labor movement there'd been talk that at some point there'd be a resurgence of interest in unions, and that organizers would have to be ready, said Jon Hiatt, former general counsel at the AFL-CIO.
  • And yet organizers are "blowing this opportunity," he said. They need to coordinate with workers on the ground, and do more to help newly organized workers land contracts.

Flashback: Last summer AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler pledged to increase the number of union members in the U.S. by 1 million workers over the next decade.

  • The 2022 data underline why the goal is too modest within a workforce of 164 million. "You'd have to organize 5 million to make a dent," Bronfenbrenner said.

Meanwhile: Companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars fighting organizing efforts with little to fear from the National Labor Relations Board, which can only levy weak penalties when companies illegally move to fire organizers, or push back in other ways.

  • An analysis from 2019 found that companies spent $340 million annually on "union avoiding" consultants who help deter organizers. It's likely that number is higher today.
  • Congress just increased NLRB funding for the first time in nearly a decade, to $299 million.

Plus: One legal catalyst for the decline in union membership was a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in 2018, which said that unions could no longer force workers to pay dues.

  • Since then, the Freedom Foundation, an anti-union group, says it’s helped 133,000 workers leave public-sector unions.
  • Meanwhile, the public sector has lost workers amid a labor shortage. The unionization rate dropped in this area from 33.9% in 2018, to 33.1% in 2022, an all-time low.
  • Other labor advocates say an increasingly pro-business judiciary is also making it difficult.

Yes, but: The membership numbers don't yet reflect all the workers who are organizing now and trying to get their first contract. That's the agreement where an employer lays out wages, benefits, etc., and it's when folks start paying dues. All the Starbucks and Amazon workers fall into this camp, for example.

What they're saying: The AFL-CIO celebrated the increase in members overall, in a blog post on its website.

  • "This is a watershed moment. This is the moment to go big and be bold," said Steve Smith, spokesperson, AFL-CIO, in a statement to Axios. "As a movement we're leveraging every available resource to support worker-led organizing and major new initiatives to ensure any worker who wants a union on the job can have one."

Yet anti-union forces hailed the overall drop in union representation, arguing workers shouldn’t be forced to pay union dues, or submit to Big Labor’s political agenda.

  • In a paradoxical way, the strong economy might be hurting the labor movement because workers have felt empowered to demand accommodations and ask for raises without the protection of a union, Lightcast chief economist Bledi Taska tells Axios.
  • "The ROI for unions decreased because the market was providing this power to employees, whereas before it was unions that [provided] this power to employees," Taska says.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to say union support neared a record in 2022. (The record was hit in the 1950s.)

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