Vice President, Labor Policy
January 26, 2022
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on January 21 released its annual union membership report for 2021. This year’s report showed that union membership as a percentage of the workforce declined by half a percentage point from 10.8% to 10.3%, a drop that matches the lowest level on record set in 2019. As this blog observed about last year’s report, there is a little more to the story due to the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 10.8% membership rate in 2020 was up from 10.3%, but it was skewed by the loss of 9.6 million jobs, most of which were non-union. Despite the rate increase that year, union membership in whole numbers dropped by 321,000. While the union membership rate in 2021 returned percentagewise to where it had been in 2019, the number of union members fell another roughly 230,000.
In other words, the addition of 4.2 million jobs in 2021 did not grow union membership, which is now down by more than half a million members in two years. Almost all those new jobs were in the private sector, and so was the decline in union membership. In 2021, the private sector lost about 50,000 union members, for a total loss of about 478,000 since 2019. Meanwhile, the private sector union membership rate itself dipped slightly from 6.3% to 6.1%, the lowest it has ever been. Its previous low point was 6.2% in 2019.
The story in the public sector was a little different but not necessarily much better. Despite losing 391,000 jobs in 2020, the public sector saw union membership increase by about 107,000 that year over 2019. In 2021, however, the number employed in the public sector dipped slightly (by about 6,000), but union membership fell by about 181,000, almost a full percentage point from 34.8% to 33.9%.
As has been the case for some time, the percentage of union members in the public sector was more than five times higher than in the private sector. What is noteworthy, perhaps, this year is that there were slightly more private sector union members (7.03 million) than public sector (6.98 million), which has not always been the case in recent years.
This year’s union membership report leaves much to be desired for organized labor leaders, to say the least. Indeed, it demonstrates yet another decline in a downward trend dating to 1955. Factoring out public sector unions, of which there were few, if any, back then, the decline amounts to about an 82% drop in union membership. Of course, public sector unions do exist, but the point is organized labor would be even more emaciated without them.
Cue agencies like the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) especially, both of which are now populated by labor’s political allies working to reshape labor policy to help stop the hemorrhaging. Meanwhile, organized labor leaders still hope to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would codify a litany of lopsided policies that would shoehorn more workers into labor unions. Though it passed the House last year, it remains stuck in the Senate, for now at least. Let’s hope it stays that way. Maybe then union leaders will think of ways to improve their product that will convince more people to buy it willingly.