Count organized labor among the groups slammed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The economic slowdown prompted by virus lockdowns has cost the union movement hundreds of thousands of private-sector members, wiping out years of gains in which labor had managed to recapture some of its membership after the dramatic losses of the 2008 recession. States with the highest degree of unionization, including those that have undergone long, severe lockdowns, such as California and New York, saw the greatest declines. Public unions, by contrast, managed to hold the line last year, thanks partly to growth in organized labor at the federal level, though they’ve never recaptured the membership that they lost a decade ago.
In 2020, the number of union members in the private sector fell by 428,000, to 7.08 million, a 5.7 percent decline. That’s now only slightly above the low for the last 70 years of 7.03 million members, recorded in 2012, when unions were still feeling the effects of the last recession and the slow economic recovery that followed it. The largest 2020 losses came in the broad category known as leisure and hospitality, which encompasses everything from sports venues, theaters, and amusement parks to hotels, casinos, and restaurants, all of which require most workers to perform their jobs on site. In these industries, over 40 percent of union jobs disappeared—a total of 161,000 members. Next hardest-hit was manufacturing, still one of the largest areas of private-sector union membership. Some 110,000 union positions, about 9 percent of the total, vanished last year. Another major union employer, the construction industry, shed 61,000 organized labor positions, while some 23,000 jobs disappeared in broadcasting and another 13,000 in the motion-picture business.
Only a few industries managed to increase union membership last year, including retailing, where the rise of e-commerce helped offset job losses among traditional stores; and transportation, where the growth of logistics firms helped deliver all those goods bought online. Public-sector unions also registered slight gains, as union members apparently kept their jobs even as the total number of government positions shrank. The largest area of public-sector gains came in federal employment during Donald Trump’s last year in office, as the number of unionized federal workers rose by some 40,000. Still, those small gains did little to reverse more than a decade of bad news for public-sector unions, which reached a membership peak in 2009, only to see a steady decline in virtually every year since then. Even with gains last year, membership in public unions remains more than 700,000 below its peak; today, some 34.8 percent of government workers are unionized, compared with 37.4 percent in 2009, according to unionstats.com.
The most heavily unionized states absorbed the biggest declines. Washington State, one of the earliest states affected by the pandemic and lockdowns, shed 81,000 union positions. New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo earned a reputation as one of the strictest lockdown advocates, recorded a loss of 71,000 union positions, followed by California, which absorbed a net loss of 63,000.
The severe lockdowns in some states have sent union leaders scrambling for solutions. In September, California union leaders joined industry executives to push Governor Gavin Newsom to reopen amusement parks like Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm and expressed frustration at the continuing lockdowns. “This is about preserving and retaining union jobs,” Ernesto Medrano, a representative for the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, told the press. “We don’t want any more layoffs. It’s time to go back to work.” But the parks remained closed well into 2021, even as Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida reopened in July 2020. Meanwhile, as vaccines became available in late 2020 in New York State, union leaders in industries devastated by Covid struggled in vain to persuade Cuomo to declare their members emergency workers so that they could get vaccinated and back on the job. “These workers have continued to put themselves at risk and have worked throughout this pandemic performing services that are critical to the State of New York,” an official with the Hotel Trades Council told Cuomo.
In one of 2020’s ironies, several states without a reputation as union strongholds managed to see their organized-labor ranks grow because of the nature of their economies. Texas led the way, with 66,000 new union positions. North Carolina, with just 3.1 percent of its private-sector workers organized, added 27,000 union positions. Another gainer was Pennsylvania, which added 41,000 union jobs and, along with Texas, almost certainly saw increases in union membership in the industries of gas and oil extraction—probably led by fracking activities.
Union leaders might take some comfort in predictions by economists that the post-pandemic rebound will be swift and robust. They’re also banking on a Democratic Congress to pass the so-called PRO Act, a union-friendly bill that would roll back state right-to-work laws and make organizing easier. Even so, the pandemic may have also caused structural changes in the economy that could undermine a union comeback. Bankruptcies have risen swiftly, undermining established companies. It’s possible that newer, nonunionized firms will step up to lead the post-pandemic rebound.