The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has released its annual report on union membership, but the findings may not tell the whole story, according to some who reviewed it.
Overall membership dropped in 2021 by approximately 241,000, meaning that around 14 million people belonged to unions. The report also found that union members, on average, earn $10,000 more per year than their unrepresented counterparts.
The AFL-CIO, to which the SIU is affiliated, looked beyond the raw data.
“The BLS annual report on union membership makes it clear that American labor laws are unquestionably broken,” the federation said in a written statement. “While the report indicates a 0.5% drop in union membership from 2020–2021, the data is not representative of the greater union trends taking place across the country. These statistics highlight the urgent need for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act.”
“In 2021, workers forcefully rejected low-wage, thankless jobs after a year of being called essential,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clearer now than ever that our labor laws are designed to make joining a union as difficult as possible. Across this country, workers are organizing for a voice on the job and millions of Americans are standing in solidarity with union members on strike. If everyone who wanted to join a union was able to do so, membership would skyrocket. The PRO Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act are how we get there.”
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions, also released their analysis of the data. The organization noted, “To understand what happened to unionization in 2021, it is crucial to recall what happened in 2020. In 2020, the number of union workers declined substantially as the pandemic caused massive job loss for both union and nonunion workers. However, unionization rates – the share of the workforce that is unionized – increased substantially because union workers lost fewer jobs during the first year of the pandemic than nonunion workers did. The lower job loss among the unionized workforce was due in no small part to a ‘pandemic composition’ effect – the fact that the industries that got hit hardest by the pandemic (such as leisure and hospitality) are less likely to be unionized than industries that were more sheltered from the pandemic, and this change in the composition of the workforce raised unionization rates mechanically. Put another way, jobs in less unionized industries were lost at a higher rate, so unionization rates went up.”
The EPI continued, “In 2021, that dynamic happened in reverse as jobs were added in the recovery. The ‘trampoline’ effect – the fact that the jobs that come back in a recovery tend to look pretty much like the jobs that were lost – means that the jobs that came back in 2021 were concentrated in industries (such as leisure and hospitality) that have low unionization rates. This contributed to the substantial decline in the unionization rate in 2021, undoing the 2020 increase. In a similar vein as the AFL-CIO’s comments, the EPI also pointed out, “The share of workers who do not but would like to have a union at their workplace is far higher than the share who had union representation in 2021 (11.6%). While more recent data are unavailable, an analysis of 2017 survey data showed almost half of nonunion workers polled (48%) said they would vote to create a union in their workplace tomorrow if they could. That figure is up substantially from about one-third (32–33%) of nonunion, nonmanagerial workers asked similar questions in 1977 and 1995.”
According to the BLS report, in 2021, the union membership rate was 10.3 percent (the same in 2019). The rate is down from 10.8 percent in 2020.
In addition, nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 83 percent of earnings for workers who were union members ($975 versus $1,169), and the union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than the rate of private-sector workers (6.1 percent).
The AFL-CIO concluded by saying, “The BLS report also shows promising data for communities of color. Black workers continued to have the highest unionization rate in 2021, with 12.9% membership…. Black union workers are paid 13.7% more than their nonunionized peers. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, union approval is at its highest level in over 50 years, with 68% of Americans supporting organized labor, including 77% of young people. An MIT study found that 60 million Americans would join a labor union if they could, underscoring the need for changes to labor laws.”