Union Membership Declined Again Last Year. But Here’s Why 2021 Could Be Good for Organized Labor

January 25, 2021 / PSU-AAUP

by Abigail Abrams

January 22, 2021

Labor unions in the United States haven’t had much good news in recent years, but this week may have provided some reasons for optimism. 

The rate of unionization in the U.S. increased in 2020 for the first time in over a decade, according to new data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Jan. 22, the same day as President Joe Biden announced two new executive orders aimed at increasing worker protections.

In 2020, 10.8% of American workers belonged to a union, up from 10.3% in 2019, the new BLS report found. Still, the picture is far from rosy. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the total number of workers in unions across the U.S. dropped by 321,000 to reach a low of 14.3 million last year.

Union membership has been declining in the U.S. for decades, and the 2020 data doesn’t fully reverse that trend. But it does show that workers belonging to a union saw fewer job losses amid the pandemic than nonunion workers.

This is likely due in part to unions’ strong engagement amid the pandemic, labor experts say. In industries ranging from health care to retail to food service to tech, workers banded together and frequently demanded better working conditions last year as COVID-19 devastated the economy and forced millions of businesses to close or change their strategies.

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