The Department of Labor’s latest statistics confirm that the union movement in the U.S. remains stagnant and slowly declining. Only 10.3 percent of U.S. workers are union members, down from 20 percent when the Department first began tracking number in the early 1980s. About 191,000 workers left union ranks in 2021. A brief apparent rise in union membership last year to 10.8 percent was a hiccup due to the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily costing non-union workers jobs, not to a surge in workers signing union cards.
The labor movement’s current leadership continues to look to politics for salvation. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, is aggressively pushing the Senate to “reform”—that is, effectively gut—the minority party’s ability to filibuster legislation, in the hope that the current Democratic majority will rewrite federal labor law, including the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), to push more workers into joining unions.
It doesn’t seem like a wise strategy. Democrats have made extravagant promises in the past only get cold feet when the time came to get the legislation passed. President Biden’s support could not get the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act through Congress last year. President Obama could not get the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act through Congress either. Once lawmakers read the bills and discovered how radical the proposed changes are, many have second thoughts.
Even if the filibuster were neutered and congressional Democrats followed through on their promises to rewrite the NLRA, those changes could be reversed the next time Republicans regained a majority.
Instead of looking to Congress, the movement needs to figure out how to appeal to workers. An internal AFL-CIO budget document for fiscal year 2019 leaked to the news site Splinter revealed that only about 10 percent of the federation’s funds goes to organizing efforts. More than a third of the federation’s overall budget goes to funding political activities.
No wonder unions are stumbling. Instead of talking to workers, they have pursued top-down policies that obligate workers to join up, such as forcing app-based employers like Uber and Lyft to essentially transform themselves into taxi companies. That’s not a good approach when the nature of the workplace is rapidly changing.