Glenn Spencer Glenn Spencer
Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Published

August 30, 2022

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A great deal of attention has recently focused on the so-called “revitalization” of unions. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) itself has bragged about a “surge” in election petitions, and media story after media story has gushed about how workers across the spectrum are demanding to organize.   

There is indeed something to this narrative, as a Bloomberg Law analysis of mid-year numbers show. For example, in the first six months of 2022, 1,199 election petitions were filed. This is up from 668 in the same period of 2021. Even with 2021 having been a lean period for organizing, this is still a significant year-over-year increase.   

Of course, not every petition results in an election. Even so, the number of elections held has also risen, from 465 in the first six months of 2021 to 837 in the same period of 2022 (once again, however, 2021 was a bit of a low point for union elections.) 

However, these numbers miss the forest for the trees. Union membership as a whole has been in decline, as the table below shows. The NLRB’s data show that just 43,000 workers were “organized” in the first six months of 2022. This is less than 10% of the overall losses unions have seen since 2017 alone, based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

Moreover, this is part of a long-term trend. BLS data show that unions made up more than 20% of the workforce in 1983, compared with 10.3% in 2021. In other words, union density has fallen by almost half during that time.   

Even the number of petitions filed and elections held in 2022 is within the range of what’s been seen in recent history. For example, between 2014 and 2016, there were more than 2,000 petitions filed every year. And yet, during that time union membership actually fell.  

This would not be the first time the media has overplayed an uptick in organizing. A recent article from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy cited articles going back more than 20 years proclaiming the rebirth of unions. During that period union density has marched inexorably downward. Organizing a handful of baristas will not reverse that fact, despite the headlines. 

This is not to say that unions don’t have a role to play in society, or that workers shouldn’t join a union if that is their wish. But it should provide a bit of a reality check to what the Federal Reserve might call “irrational exuberance” about organizing. 

About the authors

Glenn Spencer

Glenn Spencer

Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Glenn Spencer is senior vice president of the Employment Policy division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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