Vice President, Labor Policy
January 29, 2021
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on January 22 released its annual estimate of union membership in the United States. This year’s report showed that union membership rose from 10.3 percent to 10.8 percent of the total workforce in 2020, reversing previous declines of 0.2 percentage points from the prior two years. However, despite the percentage increase, the story is a little more complicated, as the total number of union members actually dropped by 321,000 to 14.3 million.
It comes as no surprise that the economy took a big hit in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the number of jobs fell by 9.6 million. Given the low levels of unionization in the United States, most of these were non-union, thus causing the percentage of unionized workers to grow relative to the overall workforce. That explains the seemingly contradictory numbers, and as the economy eventually grows, the percentage of union members in the workforce likely will dip again to some degree.
In the private sector, union membership dropped by 428,000, but the percentage of union members increased by 0.1 percentage point to 6.3 percent, again reflecting the overall decline in employment. The story in the public sector was somewhat similar.
Of the 9.6 million jobs lost, 391,000 of those were in the public sector, but the union membership rate grew by 1.2 percentage points to 34.8 percent. As has been the case for quite a few years, the percentage of union members in the public sector was over five times higher than in the private sector. More interestingly, the overall number of union members in the public sector (7.2 million) exceeded the number in the private sector (7.1 million).
Notwithstanding any thoughts of a silver lining in this year’s union membership report, the low rate continues to be source of concern that has organized labor leaders scrambling for solutions. During the Obama administration, their political allies worked assiduously to reshape labor policy to help alleviate the hemorrhaging, and unions pumped millions of dollars into campaigns with front groups known as worker centers, albeit with little effect.
Chief among labor’s goals in the new administration is passage of the so-called “Protecting the Right to Organize” (PRO) Act, which actually passed the House of Representatives last year. The PRO Act would codify a slew of lopsided policies designed to force more people into unions. With the economy continuing to falter, the proposal should be a nonstarter, but it will undoubtedly be reintroduced. Given the extremely narrow majorities in both the House and the Senate it is open to question whether the bill can pass, notwithstanding a Democrat president who would sign it. Unions may have to look for a different answer if the longstanding pattern of membership decline is to be reversed.