Last year, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of unions in the United States – the union membership rate – was 10.3 percent, down by 0.2 percentage point from 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported Jan. 22 in its 2019 Union Members Summary.
The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, 14.6 million in 2019, was little changed from 2018, the agency added. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.
According to the AFL-CIO, the foregoing numbers reflect the tremendously difficult barriers workers continue to face while seeking to form a union. Additionally, they reveal the unmatched resilience of working people in their desire to win bargaining power on the job.
Despite the latest report, federation officials labeled 2019 as a year of undeniable momentum for collective action and collective bargaining. They listed the following as just a few examples of the extraordinary ways that workers stood together in 2019 to fight for our workplaces and communities:
Following 2018’s notable year of teacher activism, thousands of teachers went on strike in states including Colorado and West Virginia. In Chicago, CTU-AFT members walked out for a historic 11 days, winning a 16% salary increase over five years.
More than 30,000 Stop & Shop workers and UFCW members in New England fought and won a three-month battle for better pay and benefits.
Nearly 50,000 UAW members at General Motors Co. walked off the job on Sept. 16, starting one of the longest and largest automotive strikes in decades. After 40 days on the picket line, GM workers secured a contract with higher pay, no change to their health care plan, a defined path for temporary workers and improved time-off policies.
20,000 CWA members in the Southeast went on strike to protest unfair labor practices at AT&T, winning a new contract with higher wages and additional job security.
Graduate student employees across the country fought for basic workplace protections. Early this year, at Harvard University, thousands of recently organized student employees and UAW members went on strike as they sought a first contract.
Unions used collective political power to expand organizing rights in 2019. The labor movement has elected thousands of union members to public office after passing a 2017 convention resolution, and it continues to pay off.
For example, labor won public sector collective bargaining in Nevada (similar efforts are underway in Colorado and Virginia), farmworker collective bargaining in New York, and logger and wood hauler collective bargaining in Maine.
Moreover, in California, AB 5 is a landmark law to prevent the misclassification of employees as independent contractors that will protect the rights and improve the working conditions of more than 1 million workers.
Meanwhile, public approval of unions continued to rise in 2019, reaching a nearly 50-year high. This comes at a time when union activists in unorganized workplaces are gaining momentum, specifically in the hospitality, electric bus manufacturing, technology, videogame and media industries. It’s worth noting many of these dozens of campaigns in digital news have yet to be ratified – meaning there are hundreds, if not thousands, of new union members unaccounted for. And all of this forward progress is despite a federal government that is actively making it harder to form a union. According to the federation, a highly politicized National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is abandoning its mission to uphold and protect workers’ right to form unions and bargain collectively, as employers are violating the law in more than 40% of all union election campaigns. This comes on the heels of the Janus decision allowing workers a free ride to be covered by union protections without paying dues, throwing out 40 years of legal precedent in an effort to undermine collective bargaining in the public sector. Despite these unprecedented attacks, many of the AFL-CIO’s public sector unions still grew in 2019.
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