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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.

Go deeper

Updated Dec 19, 2021 - Economy & Business

Companies give up on return-to-work

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the 22 months since U.S. companies sent their workers home, they've collected droves of poll data, paid workplace consultants billions of dollars, and drafted plan after plan — but they still don't know much more about post-pandemic work than they did in March 2020.

Driving the news: The latest factor to foil every return-to-work plan is the arrival of the Omicron COVID variant.

Willie Brown, head of SEPTA's largest union, steps down

Willie Brown speaks in a Transport Workers Union Local 234 YouTube video. Screenshot courtesy of the union

Willie Brown has stepped down as president of the Transport Workers Union Local 234 this week.

Driving the news: Brown has transitioned to a role directing the Transit, Universities, Utilities, and Services Division for the national Transport Workers Union of America, Local 234 spokesperson Jamie Horwitz told Axios. He was elected to the position in August.

  • Brian Pollitt, executive vice president of Local 234, will take over as union president.

U.S. on the cusp of full employment

Fed chair Jerome Powell during a livestreamed news conference. Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The nation's top economic policymaker all but said it Wednesday: America is on the cusp of full employment.

The big picture: "The labor market by many measures is hotter than it ever was" before the pandemic, Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell told reporters.

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