Union election data masks long-term membership decline

Much attention has recently been focused on the so-called “revitalization” of unions. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) itself has issued a “rise‘ in election petitions, and story after story raved about how workers across the spectrum are calling for organisation.

There is indeed some truth to this narrative, according to a mid-year analysis by Bloomberg Law Counting Show. For example, in the first six months of 2022, 1,199 election applications were submitted. This is an increase from 668 over the same period in 2021. Even if 2021 was a lean time for the organization, it’s still a significant increase from the previous year.

Of course, not every petition leads to an election. However, the number of elections held has also increased, from 465 in the first six months of 2021 to 837 in the same period of 2022 (however, 2021 was another small trough for union elections).

However, these figures miss the forest for the trees. Union membership has declined overall, as shown in the table below. NLRB data shows that only 43,000 workers were “organized” in the first six months of 2022. That’s less than 10% of the total losses unions have seen since 2017 alone, based on Counting from the Federal Office for Labor Statistics (BLS).

It’s also part of a long-term trend. BLS data shows that unions made up more than 20% of the workforce in 1983, compared to 10.3% in 2021. In other words, union density has fallen by almost half over that time.

The number of petitions submitted and elections held in 2022 is also within the range of recent history. For example between 2014 and 2016, more than 2,000 petitions were filed each year. And yet, during this time union membership actually fell.

This wouldn’t be the first time the media has exaggerated an uptick in organizing. A recently article from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy cited more than 20-year-old articles proclaiming the rebirth of unions. During this period, union density has steadily increased downward. Organizing a handful of baristas won’t reverse that fact, despite the headlines.

This is not to say that unions have no role to play in society, or that workers should not join a union if they choose to do so. But it should offer a little reality check for what the Federal Reserve might call “irrational exuberance” about the organization.

About the authors

Glenn Spencer

Glenn Spencer

Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division, US Chamber of Commerce

Glenn Spencer is senior vice president of employment policy at the US Chamber of Commerce.

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