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News from EPI Unionization rates rose in 2020 because a smaller share of union workers lost their jobs: Labor law reform should be a top priority for Congress and the new administration

New data on unionization from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2020, 15.9 million workers in the United States were represented by a union, a decline of 444,000 from 2019. However, while unionization levels dropped in 2020, unionization rates rose because union workers have seen less job loss than non-union workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Where workers have been able to act collectively and bargain through their union, they have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, and paid sick time, during the pandemic,” said EPI Director of Policy Heidi Shierholz. “Due to this, unionized workers have had a voice in how their employers have navigated the pandemic, including negotiating for terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs. This likely played a role in limiting overall job loss among unionized workers.”

Another reason unionization rates increased over the last year was a “pandemic composition effect.” In particular, industries with lower unionization rates, like leisure and hospitality, have tended to experience the most job loss during the pandemic, while sectors with higher unionization rates, like the public sector, have tended to see less job loss. A simple decomposition of the increase in the overall unionization rate in 2020 shows that roughly half (46.5%) of the increase was the result of a pandemic composition effect, while roughly half (53.5%) was due to union workers seeing less job loss than nonunion workers in the same industry.

In the private sector, 8.0 million workers were represented by a union in 2020, a decline of 544,000. The biggest losses were in leisure and hospitality (-177,000) and manufacturing (-134,000). However, the unionization rate in the private sector ticked up from 7.1% to 7.2%, due in large part to the fact that subsectors with somewhat higher unionization rates, such as healthcare and transportation and warehousing, saw a lower rate of job loss in the pandemic.

In the public sector, 7.9 million workers were represented by a union in 2020, an increase of 100,000. The increase was entirely among state government workers. The authors find that there was a decline in unionization of 38,000 in local government education which was roughly offset by an increase in unionization in local government jobs outside of education. On the other hand, the federal government unionization rate decreased from 30.5% to 30.0%, which is likely due in part to concerted attacks on federal government unions by the Trump administration.

12.3% of men and 11.8% of women were represented by a union in 2020. While women experienced more job loss than men over the last year, the number of women in unions declined less (a decline in unionization of 31,000 among women and 413,000 among men). Of all major racial and ethnic groups, Black workers have the highest unionization rates, at 13.9%. This compares to 12.0% for white workers, 11.0% for Hispanic workers, and 10.0% for Asian workers. In 2020, Black workers experienced the largest rate of decline in employment but the largest increase in the rate of unionization. This was likely due to in large part to composition effects—for example, women and Black workers are disproportionately concentrated in leisure and hospitality, which has seen large job loss but has low unionization rates, and in the public sector, which has seen less job loss and has higher unionization rates.

“The Biden administration and Congress must institute policies that promote union representation and collective bargaining as we rebuild our post-pandemic economy and workforce,” said Celine McNicholas, EPI Director of Government Affairs. “Unions played an invaluable role in fighting for health and safety measures during the pandemic, and but they have been under attack by corporate interests for decades. The Biden administration and the new Congress must make passing the PRO Act and other crucial labor law reforms a main priority.”

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