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What the Headlines Don’t Tell You About Union Membership

Diverse collage of workers

Recently, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership grew in the United States last year by more than a quarter of a million workers, with Black workers representing nearly all of this growth. That means more than 14.3 million workers are now members of unions.

This data reflects the growing interest among working people in forming a union at their workplace. But you would never know that from reading newspaper headlines when the BLS data was released. Many media outlets wrote headlines saying union membership went down, when it actually went up. Others focused on the overall share of the workforce who are union members, which fell slightly because the growth in union membership was dwarfed by unprecedented job growth during the Biden-Harris administration, including a record 4.5 million new jobs in 2022 alone. Union membership went up but hasn’t caught up with overall job growth. It’s also important to note that the 2022 increase in the number of union members was significant and offset the decrease of 241,000 in 2021.

Interest in organizing is at historic levels. Election petitions are up 53% at the National Labor Relations Board and other labor relations agencies, and the union win rate is up, too.

Workers clearly want unions. Workers – particularly young workers and workers of color – are organizing at coffee shops, retail stores, universities, museum, nonprofits, tech companies, and other industries and sectors at a level we haven’t seen in decades. 60 million non-union workers say they would vote for a union today if given the chance.

More employers are seeing that their workers want a collective voice and are respecting their decision to organize by voluntarily recognizing their workers’ union and getting to the bargaining table. Employers like Microsoft, Major League Baseball, Conde Nast and more are staying out of the way when workers are deciding whether to organize and have agreed to respect their workers’ decision. This high road approach is commendable and hopefully will pave the way for even more employers following suit.

But why isn’t this groundswell of interest in organizing translating into even higher union membership growth numbers? 

First, the process for organizing is too slow, especially when employers choose to fight rather than take the high road like Microsoft and others have done. Many of the organizing campaigns that caught fire in 2022 – or even 2021 – have not yet resulted in worker wins because workers have not yet had a chance to have a free, fair vote. 

Bar graph illustrating first contract rates after years following election.
Chart from page 16 of the testimony before the United States House Committee on Education and Labor by Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Second, many newly organized workers are still struggling to negotiate a first contract with their employer. Only 36% of newly organized units reach a first agreement within one year of organizing. Our law is weak when it comes to the bargaining process, which makes it that much more significant when companies react like Ultium recently did after workers overwhelmingly voted for UAW representation – the company said it respected the result and would get to the bargaining table. More companies should do the same. 

Workers, employers, communities and our economy do better when workers have a collective voice through a union. The Biden-Harris administration supports workers who choose to exercise their right to organize, and we urge all employers to respect their workers’ choice and do the same.

Marty Walsh is the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @SecMartyWalsh.

Sourced from Us Dept of Labor

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