If America Had Fair Laws, 60 Million Workers Would Join a Union Tomorrow

According to data recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Labor Relations Board, the number of American workers who belong to unions has increased over the past year. Amid the general downward curve that has defined the last few decades of American labor organizing, the total number of unionized workers nationwide has increased by about 200,000—with particularly large increases seen in Alabama (40,000), Maryland (40,000), Ohio (52,000), Texas (72,000) and California (99,000). Between October 2021 and September 2022, the number of petitions to the National Labor Relations Board for union elections jumped by a staggering 53 percent.

Driving the increase was a wave of unionization among black workers, 231,000 more of whom are now union members (the number of unionized white workers actually fell by 31,000). While 88,000 new union jobs were added in the public sector, successful organizing in industries such as entertainment, transportation and warehousing added 112,000 new union jobs in the private sector.

But in their analysis of the data, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explain why, taken as a whole, the new data is less than encouraging. First, the economy added non-union jobs at a greater rate than unionized ones, so the total share of workers with union membership actually fell very slightly from 11.6 percent to 11.3 percent. Additionally, the raw numbers, while not negligible, were driven in part by unusually strong job growth that won’t necessarily persist for years to come. Still, when viewed in conjunction with other developments, such as the fifty-year peak in public support for unions that Gallup registered in 2021, the data offer some evidence that the nascent battle against the long-term decline of union labor has begun.

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But perhaps the most remarkable statistic highlighted in the EPI analysis concerns the number of workers who wanted to join a union in 2022 but couldn’t: about 60 million, or 48 percent of the total workforce, are not in a union. It’s ironic, given that the political right often justifies anti-union laws under the guise of choice and voluntarism (as evidenced by Orwellian phrases like “right to work”), that the appetite for union membership is so much greater than current union density would suggest . As the EPI researchers clearly note, “the large increase in the share of workers who express a desire to join a union over the last four decades has occurred at the same time as the share of workers represented by a union has decreased.”

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This divergence is largely due to employer-friendly laws and regulations that make it very difficult to organize the workplace, even when the majority of workers are in favor. For example, a recent study by Gordon Lafer, a labor expert at the University of Oregon, finds that the climate facing workers in many companies is actually similar to that faced by democratic opposition movements during sham elections in one-party dictatorships. First, the existing laws governing unionization are almost comically skewed against employers. Moreover, when management breaks the rules—employers are accused of violating federal law in more than 40 percent of union elections—the penalties are often so lax that they can only be seen as a cost of doing business: a situation that allows rampant intimidation and election rigging. As Lafer illustrates with several examples from the automotive industry:

[At Tesla] the labor board recently concluded that the company committed a series of violations, including illegally firing one union supporter and disciplining another for their union activity; threatening employees with the loss of stock options if they join a union; limiting employees’ conversations with the media; forced interrogation of union supporters; and prohibit employees from distributing union information to their co-workers. The CEO of Fuyao Glass, the country’s largest auto glass manufacturer, was also recorded openly reporting to the company’s president that he had fired employees who tried to organize a union.

The decades-long decline in unionized work, as EPI’s analysis finds, has therefore not occurred because workers do not want to join unions, but because the design of current labor laws prohibits their formation, even if the desire to do so is strong. With determination, perseverance and courage, and with the wind of unusually strong job growth at their backs, hundreds of thousands of workers across America successfully joined unions last year. With more democratic labor laws, tens of millions more would be happy to do the same.

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