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How Badly Are Things Going for Unions Right Now?

By Tim Murphy - Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C.

April 15, 2021

Unions have been back in the news again so it seems like a good time for a brief check-in to see how they are faring.

Unions lost members in 2020  

Unions lost 321,000 members in 2020, a drop of 2.2%. Pretty bad, huh? Maybe not, if you look at it in relative terms. Despite our economy shedding almost ten million jobs because of the pandemic, the percentage of the overall workforce in unions, aka union density, was slightly higher at the end of 2020 than at the start. In a classic glass-half-full take, Richard Trumpka, AFL-CIO President, predicted that this slight increase in union density is “part of a national groundswell.”

What impact will the Amazon election have on union organizing?

Unless you have been hiding out in the catacombs (as the nuns I knew used to say to high school students like me who didn’t always seem to know what was going on), warehouse workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama facility voted overwhelmingly to remain non-union. Overturning that result will be an uphill fight. It is hard to read too much into any one union election, but Mr. Trumpka may want to revise his groundswell prediction.

In touting the potential of organizing Southern workers, unions rejected the conventional wisdom that unions are a hard sell in the Sunbelt. In recent years, unions have invested much to organize Southern workers – particularly in the auto industry—because that’s where good, historically union jobs have migrated. To date, there has been little return on their investment. Only time will tell what the impact of this election will be; I’m sure, however, that it won’t be the last election at an Amazon facility.

How is 2021 looking for unions?

It’s hard to say. Our economic rebound should be in full swing this year bringing back many of the union jobs/members lost to the pandemic. Also, the Biden Administration will take a pro-union approach, and the (barely) Democratic Congress may look to pass pro-union reform legislation. Increased worker activism may translate into election successes for unions, too.

I can’t help but think though that the short-term gains for unions that these favorable developments may yield will not be enough to reverse 60-plus years of union membership decline.  

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