The Fall—and Apparent Rise—of Unions in the United States

Union membership in the United States peaked in the 1950s, when one out of every three non-farm workers was a part of a labor union. Through the rest of the 20th century, union membership fell off. There were many reasons for this decline in membership—the New Deal coalition that had centered labor unions in its platform lost national power, many manufacturing jobs went overseas as international markets opened up, and industries that did not move overseas were deregulated in response to the inflation and unemployment of the 1970s and 1980s.

Additionally, the cultural, political, and economic institutions in place in the United States have long made it more difficult for unions to gain support and legitimacy. During the Red Scare, many Americans were wary of labor unions because they believed that unions were a communist threat to traditional American values. Further, as a two-party state, the United States lacks an influential Labor Party. Though the Democratic Party has been more sympathetic to labor unions and organizers in recent years, unionizing is still difficult without a party that promotes workers’ rights. Finally, there is an entire legal industry—worth $340 million a year—whose sole focus is preventing union organization. 

Workers’ rights in the United States are much weaker than those in countries with comparable economies. But despite this comparative weakness and the decades-long war that corporations and politicians have been waging against unions and labor organizers, unions seem to be gaining traction today. 71% of the American public supports labor unions, and Amazon, Starbucks, and REI workers all had historic union wins in 2022, even in the face of corporate pushback. 

Recent union movements have focused on things other than traditional union issues like higher wages and benefits for hourly workers. Museum workers, adjunct professors, and resident assistants have all begun joining and creating unions in larger numbers than ever before. Kickstarter was the first tech company to unionize, but those workers did not unionize because they sought higher pay or better benefits. They unionized because management removed a controversial fundraiser from the website. Even non-union labor organization has increased—2019 saw walkouts at companies like Wayfair and Google in response to various issues.

The uptick in labor organizations is due to many factors. Even before the pandemic, workers were disenchanted. They were constantly seeing messaging about a prosperous economy and record stock prices, but their own paychecks did not reflect the gains their companies were making. During the pandemic, employees were called “essential workers” by their employers and everyday Americans, but their wages, benefits, and safety protocols at work did not reflect this title.

Although unions appear to be gaining strength, they face an uphill battle. In late 2022, railway workers threatened to strike after three years of failed contract negotiation. Workers refused to accept a contract without paid sick leave, and rail companies refused to accept a contract with paid sick leave, so a strike at the busiest time of the year was imminent. Because Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce, Congress, with the help of the Biden administration, imposed a contract that did not include paid sick leave. (Note that Biden stated that he “intend[s] to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”) While the Democratic Party claims to support unions, they only do so when it is politically advantageous, failing to prioritize labor unions when it matters most. 

Labor unions are important: they improve wages and working conditions for all workers, whether or not they are union members, and they create spaces where workers can communicate with their management. However, the unions that do succeed only do so because they beat the odds—while 71% of Americans support unions, only 10% of American workers are union members. Union membership in the United States is at an all-time low, in large part due to corporate opposition to unions and indifference from the government, like what is seen when Amazon workers attempt to unionize While workers across the country are making headlines with their efforts to better their workplaces and improve their pay, actual progress can only be made once the government steps in and stands up for everyday Americans.