The Covid-induced lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021 were not kind to unions. Organized labor lost more than half a million members in the steep recession the country faced when states and cities shut down much of their economies. Even when labor markets began to recover in mid-2021, labor groups kept shedding workers, as the rebound occurred primarily among non-union employers.

Last year finally reversed the trend, though modestly. The number of workers belonging to a union rose by 273,000 in 2022, the first membership growth in five years. However, the gains didn’t keep pace with the overall increase in American jobs. As a result, the percentage of workers in unions fell again in 2022, to an all-time low of 10.1 percent. In the private sector, just 6 percent of workers are unionized, down from 6.1 percent, while in government the share of the workforce in unions slipped from 33.9 percent to 33.1 percent.

Labor’s struggles represent a shift in America’s economic landscape. Unions are strongest in states that imposed some of the harshest lockdowns and have struggled the most to come back economically; the biggest winners post-Covid have been places where unions are weaker. That’s reflected in labor’s limited gains. The two most union-friendly states in the country, with the highest degree of workers in a labor organization, are Hawaii and New York. Both states sustained big lockdown losses and continue to struggle economically. The Empire State shed nearly 900,000 jobs in the recession and has regained only about 60 percent of them. Union membership rolls in the Empire State have declined by about 50,000 since 2019. Hawaii, meantime, has 50,000 fewer jobs and 10,000 fewer union positions today than it did in late 2019. Similarly, heavily organized Illinois has regained only two-thirds of the jobs it lost in the recession. Unions have 45,000 fewer members there than before the pandemic. California did better, adding nearly 900,000 jobs last year and 149,000 union members, but it has only recently regained the 1.1 million jobs it lost during its deep lockdowns.

Republican-leaning states like Texas, by contrast—with generally low taxes, fewer regulations, and less penetration by unions—have racked up big net employment gains. Though Texas lost some 460,000 jobs in the Covid recession, it has added back nearly 1.1 million. Florida similarly dropped about 390,000 jobs but has rebounded with nearly 800,000 new employment positions. North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona are ranked next best among the states for their recoveries, collectively adding about 475,000 net new jobs. The problem for unions is that these are right-to-work states, where the law doesn’t compel workers to join a union or pay it fees for representation. Fewer than 5.5 percent of workers in Arizona are organized, and the numbers are even lower in the other four states. The result is that union jobs represent a small percentage of net job growth.

The Biden administration, elected with heavy union support, promised to aid them in the wake of membership declines. Biden proposed a radical rewrite of American labor law with the PRO Act, which would have banned right-to-work ordinances in 28 states that allow workers to opt out of unions. That and other proposals made the legislation so controversial that even some moderate Democrats refused to sign onto it, stalling the legislation in the Democratically controlled Congress. Now the White House is looking for other ways to boost unions. The Labor Department has proposed a new rule that would narrow the definition of independent contractors, forcing more workers into full-time status, thus making them targets for unionization. The rule resembles a controversial California law that has upset labor markets there, prompting independent truckers to launch protests and some firms to stop using contractors because they would now have to hire them full time. If imposed nationally by the Biden administration, such a rule would almost certainly face numerous legal challenges.

Right-to-work laws have massively shifted the economic-development landscape, as companies, especially in industrial sectors, invest in states that don’t compel workers to join a union. In the last decade, five states adopted right-to-work legislation after studies found that states with this labor feature significantly outperformed places where laws required unionization. Indiana, which passed right-to-work legislation in 2012, has added nearly 50,000 manufacturing jobs since then. By contrast, neighboring Illinois, a required-unionization state that was once the industrial powerhouse of the Midwest, has lost about 10,000 manufacturing jobs over the same period. Even so, Democrats have targeted right-to-work laws because of the party’s close alliance with unions. Michigan passed right-to-work legislation in 2012 after having lost more than 100,000 industrial jobs in the previous decade. Since 2012, Michigan has gained about 55,000 manufacturing jobs. But Democrats, having won full control of state government in Michigan for the first time since 2012, are trying to roll back right-to-work.

Not surprisingly, much of the increase in union membership is occurring in industries that require local services that can’t be easily outsourced or moved to the most favorable business environment. Service industries saw gains in union workers last year, including health care, which grew during the pandemic in part because of massive increases in government funding. Similarly, union ranks expanded in the transportation sector, as employers added local jobs thanks to surging demand for home deliveries. Unions also recorded membership gains in areas like hotels and restaurants, though these sectors were so devastated by the pandemic lockdowns that they’ve yet to return to their pre-Covid numbers.

The media and some political allies of unions have touted recent organizing successes at big employers like Starbucks and Amazon as evidence that labor is making a comeback. And polls show that unions’ favorability rating has hit a 50-year high. But union leaders themselves have been cautious, husbanding resources rather than spending heavily on organizing and representing workers. Maybe they know something that their supporters don’t. The latest membership numbers suggest as much.

Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images


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