Unions: Facts and Fluff

Unions: Facts and Fluff

Unions: Facts and Fluff

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of US workers belonging to a union fell slightly, from 10.1% of all workers in 2022 to 10.0% in 2023.

In response to this decline, the US Secretary of Labor Julie Su issued a statement that started this way:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an increase in union membership, with 139,000 more union members in 2023 than in 2022, meaning this country has 400,000 more union workers than we had in 2021. The gains under the Biden-Harris administration underscore President Biden’s commitment to being the most pro-worker, pro-union president in history.  We have seen large private sector increases in unionization among health care workers, transportation and warehousing workers, and in educational services. These are workers who recognize that they have power and are organizing to use that power. Workers in health care, auto manufacturing, transportation, entertainment and more have delivered big wins at the bargaining table in the past year.

Again, these sentiments are expressed while BLS data shows a slight decline in the rate of union membership from 2022 to 2023. For the record, the union membership rate was 10.3% in 2021, and 10.8% in 2020, before “the most pro-worker, pro-union president in history” took office. But as the BLS was reporting that from 2022 to 2023, the share of private-sector workers in unions stayed flat at just 6.0%, while the share of public-sector workers in unions declined from 33.1% to 32.5%, those in support of unions were weirdly triumphalist. For an example chosen more-or-less at random, here’s some commentary from the National Partnership for Women and Families:

2023 was a banner year for labor actions and unions. “Hot Strike Summer” morphed into “The Year of the Union” as a strong job market, more than a decade of intensive labor organizing kicked off by the “Fight for 15” and a growing recognition of the need for worker protections through the ongoing pandemic helped drive major wins for workers. Striking United Auto Workers, writers, actors, UPS workers and Kaiser Permanente health care workers secured strong contracts that include benefits like increased wages, health care access and job protections, while U.S. rail workers secured paid sick leave for a large segment of their workforce. Workers at Starbucks continued to gain momentum towards their first contract in defiance of blatant union-busting tactics, building on years of organizing work and hundreds of successful store votes. In part because of these high-profile strikes, unions saw near record highs of public support in 2023, with two-thirds of people approving of unions, more than 6 in 10 saying unions help the U.S. economy and one-third of people predicting unions will be stronger in the future. Workers’ efforts were coupled with the Biden administration’s success in reinvigorating the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency dedicated to protecting employees’ rights to organize and addressing unfair labor practices.

Remember that during this “banner year for labor actions and unions,” the share of US workers who actually belong to a union was shrinking–and has been shrinking for decades, including last year and in fact during the entire presidency. It’s true that in general, public attitudes seem more supportive of unions. But some of the union successes in the last few years, like the first success in unionizing an Amazon warehouse (on Staten Island), have since become mired in controversy and seem in danger of failing.

Maybe we’ll all look back on 2023 as the year union membership in the US bottomed out, and the beginning of a great union resurgence, but I doubt it. A couple of years ago, Suresh Naidu wrote “Is There Any Future for a US Labor Movement?” in the Fall 2022 issue of  Journal of Economic Perspectives, where I work as Managing Editor. Naidu is sympathetic toward unions, but also clear-eyed. For example, he points out that old-style union organizing outside a large physical facility is not going to work well in an economy where many people are working from home, or doing gig jobs. He points out that a decline in unionization may also reflect a broader decline in “social capital” of people acting together in a variety of contexts. He discussed a range of organizations that try to speak for worker interests in a systematic way (like the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour) without actually being unions.

But Naidu also points to an even more fundamental issue that US unions face: they need to organize one company at a time. In a dynamic US economy, where some companies are always shrinking or going out of business, this means that unions are running on a treadmill: they need to keep organizing new unionized companies just to offset the typical year-to-year loss of previously organized companies. Naidu writes:

In the United States and other establishment-level bargaining systems, a basic constraint on union density is that it is hard to organize new firms fast enough to keep pace with the exit of already unionized firms. Even if unionization were an order of magnitude easier, the costly trench warfare of establishment-by establishment organizing in the face of structural change and natural business dynamism makes keeping union density constant, let alone expanding it, an uphill battle.

Naidu cites a study from a couple of decades ago, when about 13% of American workers belonged to a union, which calculated that just to keep the rate of unionized workers stable, it “would require that the unions organize each year new members equal to 7.5 percent of their current membership.” That would require increasing the then-existing union organizing successes by six-fold, just to keep the unionization rate stable. The calculation would be a little different today, but the basic lesson remains: Americans say nice things about unions in surveys, but when it comes to organizing and supporting a union in their own workplace, most of them aren’t interested.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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