Screenwriters and actors led the strike and entertainment industry leaders followed suit by hotel cleaners, Amazon warehouse workers and food industry workers, creating a “summer of strikes” this summer.
In the first eight months of 2023, more than 323,000 workers left their jobs for better benefits, pay and/or working conditions. But the rate of union membership is at its lowest in decades at 10.1% in 2022. As strike activity has increased over the past few years, why has union membership not followed?
Strike activity increases, union membership lags
In 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 485,000 people participated in large-scale strikes — the largest participation since 1983.
Large-scale labor action was driven in part by the Red for Ed movement in 2018 and 2019. Educators across the country and across party lines walked out for increased pay, better working conditions and more school funding.
Unionization rates have continued to decline for decades, even as labor strikes continue. The overall rate of union membership is much lower than it was 40 years ago. Between 1983 and 2022, union membership fell from 20.1% to 10.1%.
“Union density was over 30% in the post-World War II decades of the 1950s and 1960s,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.
Will unions make a comeback?
In the first half of 2022, unions won 662 elections, covering a total of 58,543 workers — the most in nearly 20 years, according to the data. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
But union membership rates have been declining for decades. In the 1950s, one in three workers was represented by a union. Now it’s closer to one-tenth.
Why is union membership so low?
Labor laws in the United States make it more difficult for employees to form unions: Around 27 states Passing “right to work” laws makes it harder for workers to unionize. These Acts provide union representation to non-union members— Without having to pay union dues.
Wong said even if workers win the union election, it will be a two-step hurdle. “They have to win an election to certify that they are the bargaining unit representing workers in any workplace. But beyond that, they have to agree to the company to the contract.”
He continued, “The unfortunate reality is that the laws are not working for workers.”
Corporations invest money in programs and consultants to introduce anti-union laws into the workplace and introduce anti-union tactics. A 2019 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that companies spent $340 million Annually on “union avoidance” consultants to help prevent organizers. And employers were accused of violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns.
Workplace sectors that have traditionally been union strongholds, such as manufacturing, transportation and construction, have fewer workers.
Writers Strike 2023 Explained:Why the WGA left, and what it means for TV and film
Summer Strikes:How many people are on strike in 2023?
Most Americans support labor unions
According to one poll, two-thirds of Americans approve of labor unions call up. That rate is even higher for Americans under 30—88% polled by the AFL-CIO say they support unions.
Wong said that while public support for unions is relatively high, that is not reflected in unionization rates. “Labor laws in this country are heavily weighted in favor of corporations and employers and against workers.” He added, “With the collapse of unionization, we’ve seen greater economic inequality, a bottoming out of the middle class, and a growing number of the working poor.”
Why do people strike?
In 2018 and 2019, “The Red for Ed” movement brought educators from across the country and across the political spectrum into classrooms and on the front lines. Teachers demanded higher pay, more resources for students and more funding for schools.
Karen White, deputy executive director of the National Education Association, said many of the same concerns are top of mind today. White joined striking teachers in North Carolina and Oklahoma. “Educators are fed up with the lack of respect, inadequate compensation and lack of support for their students in schools,” White said.
White said NEA members and educators across the country are striking on non-traditional issues. Smaller class sizes, better mental health support for students, more nurses and counselors are some examples. “Educators want to make sure their students have what they need to be the best learners in those classrooms.”
In March 2023, more than 60,000 Los Angeles Unified School District employees — including school staff and teachers — went on strike for increased share wages and raises.
Who is in labor unions now?
Nearly 35% of workers in the security services industry were represented by a union. This includes correctional officers, police, firefighters and security forces. They had the highest unionization rates of any labor force. Education, training and library professions followed at 33.7%, According to the BLS.
Jobs in sales, computer and math occupations, and food preparation/assembly had the lowest rates of union membership: all less than 4%.
Men have historically had higher union membership rates compared to women, but the gap between those rates has narrowed in recent years. Women now make up 47% of all union members.
Black workers continued to have higher union membership rates (11.6%) compared to white workers (10%), Asian workers (8.3%), and Hispanic workers (8.8%).
Which states have the most unionized employees?
Nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s resident workers are represented by unions, According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At least 19 states have a higher proportion of employees represented by unions compared to the national average. South Carolina had the lowest percentage of union-represented workers at 2%.