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News from EPI Number of workers represented by a union declined in 2021, showing why we must reform our broken labor law

New data on unionization from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 15.8 million U.S. workers were represented by a union in 2021. The share of workers who were represented by a union fell substantially between 2020 and 2021 (down 0.5 percentage points, from 12.1% to 11.6%). But looking between 2019 and 2021—the full pandemic period so far—unionization rates were unchanged, at 11.6%.

Unionization rates jumped up in 2020, from 11.6% to 12.1%, in large part because of a “pandemic composition effect”—the fact that the jobs that were lost in 2020 were more concentrated in industries with low unionization rates, such as leisure and hospitality. The pandemic composition effect began to unwind in 2021 as these same types of less-unionized jobs came back and offset the increase unionization rates in 2020.

In the private sector, the unionization rate in 2021 was 7.0%, down 0.1 percentage points from 2019 (it rose 0.1 percentage points in 2020 and dropped 0.2 percentage points in 2021). In the public sector, the unionization rate in 2021 was 37.6%, up 0.4 percentage points from 2019 (it rose 1.2 percentage points in 2020 and dropped 0.8 percentage points in 2021). 

The share of workers who would like to be a member of a union at their workplace is far higher than the share who were in a union in 2021 (11.6%). As a result of decades of relentless attacks on the right to organize, the current unionization rate is well under half what it was roughly 40 years ago. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House last year with bipartisan support, provides a comprehensive set of reforms that would strengthen private-sector workers’ right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

“The decline of union membership in 2021 is a wakeup call to lawmakers that we must reform our broken labor law,” said Heidi Shierholz, EPI President. “The Biden administration and Congress must adopt policies that make it easier for workers to form a union, including the PRO Act. Not only are these policy changes crucial to restoring a fair balance of power between workers and employers, they are also essential to an equitable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.”

The number of workers in unions dropped in 2021 by 137,000, on top of a decline of 444,000 in 2020, for a total reduction of 581,000 union workers between 2019 and 2021. The unionization rate held steady between 2019 and 2021 even though the number of workers in unions dropped substantially over the same period because the number of workers in unions declined at roughly the same rate as the number of workers not in unions over this period. However, as the economy continues to recover and the pandemic composition effect continues to unwind, unionization rates will face downward pressures in 2022—unless policymakers act to reform labor law. 

Of all major racial and ethnic groups, Black workers continued to have the highest unionization rates in 2021, at 12.9%. This compares with a 11.6% unionization rate for white workers, 10.3 for Latinx workers, and 9.0% for Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers. The share of workers represented by a union in 2021 was similar among men and women, with 11.9% of men and 11.3% of women represented by a union.

Despite the decline in union membership and the growing gap between the demand for and the availability of union membership, workers continued to exercise their right to form unions and bargain collectively in 2021. Union activity last year included organizing drives with nurses, journalists, graduate students, and even Starbuck workers, as well as successful strikes by taxi drivers in New York, health care workers in Buffalo, and factory workers at Deere. The substantial level of union activity in 2021 demonstrates that workers want and value unions. The fact that unionization nevertheless declined is a glaring testament to how broken U.S. labor law really is and how urgent it is that Congress pass the PRO Act.