Labor unions represent a larger percentage of U.S. workers than at any time in the past five years, as the pandemic took its biggest bite out of non-unionized jobs.
Why it matters: America’s labor movement isn’t quite resurgent, but it is showing signs of life after decades of decline.
By the numbers: In 2020, 10.8% of all wage and salaried workers were members of unions, up 0.5% from 2019, according to government statistics.
That’s the highest mark since 2015 (11.%). Men were more likely than women to be in a union (11% vs. 10.5%), and the highest age cohort was 45-64 years old. Black workers (11.2%) were more likely to be union members than white (10.3%), Asian (8.8%) or Hispanic (8.5%) workers. A huge gap remains between public sector (34.8%) and private sector (6.3%) workers.
Caveat: The actual number of union members fell in 2020 by over 321,000, but the decline in nonunion jobs was much steeper.
What’s next: The big question is whether labor unions can successfully adjust to the changing face of American work, which is becoming much more about service work than manufacturing.
They still face a steep uphill climb, as evidenced by last fall’s failure to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and of a ballot referendum in California to change the legal status of gig economy workers like Uber drivers. Labor may still win out in both cases, though, as the NLRB has recommended a revote by those Amazon workers and a California judge just struck down what was known as Prop 22. Plus, Starbucks is facing a rare unionization push in Upstate New York.
Historical reminder: Labor Day celebrates all American workers, but it was the outgrowth of organized labor marches in the late 1800s that effectively doubled as one-day strikes. It became a federal holiday 12 years after the first such march, which took place in New York City.