Press Release Unions Workers

Widespread Union Organizing in 2021 Not Enough to Reverse Membership Decline, says CEPR Expert

January 20, 2022

Contact: KL Conner, 202-281-4159Mail_Outline

Washington DC — In response to the disappointing decline in union membership reported today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), CEPR’s Research Associate Hayley Brown responds with these comments:

“Union membership shares returned to 2019 levels in 2021, declining by half a percentage point to 10.3 percent from their notable uptick in 2020. The unionization rate fell in both the public and private sectors between 2020 and 2021, by 0.9 and 0.3 percentage points, respectively. Compared to 2019, however, union density in the public sector increased by 0.3 percentage points. Union density in manufacturing remained flat, in keeping with its downward trend toward the private sector average.

“Though it is disappointing that 2020’s uptick in union density did not continue in 2021, it would be a mistake to assume that 2021 marked a return to business as usual for the labor movement.

“First, it is important to note that, amid the massive pandemic-related job loss in 2020, proportionately more nonunion workers lost jobs than union workers. As a result, union members made up a larger share of those who remained employed. 

“Second, while the massive organizing wave implied by “Striketober” coverage may not be immediately apparent in today’s BLS release, 2021 was a banner year for unions in some important respects. 

“Unions’ favorability rating among the American public reached the highest level since 1965. The highest approval was found among workers under the age of 35, with over 77 percent of those in this age group expressing positive views toward labor unions. Yet in 2021, less than 10 percent of workers in this age group were union members. This represents a unique opportunity to build on enthusiasm among younger generations of workers to grow union membership and worker power in the years to come.

“Nevertheless, significant barriers still exist to building collective worker power. Passing legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act that removes obstacles to organizing is especially important to allow workers to build on the historic momentum generated during the pandemic.”

CEPR’s Hayley Brown is available for press comment.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) will release a detailed analysis and visualizations of the 2021 union membership data in a forthcoming report.

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