Last year’s strike numbers were bad, actually

Associated Press/Joshua Bessex

Everyone from Robert Reich to Jorts the Cat has declared a resurgence of union activity. Developments such as Kellogg’s workers successfully demanding a new labor deal and a John Deere strike resulting in an across-the-board eight percent wage increase led to the viral hashtag #Striketober, catching the attention of politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). But these developments are fairly isolated incidents amidst a chronic decline of union power. This incorrect narrative of resurgence is hampering efforts to build up worker power.

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released numbers summarizing 2021’s total number of major work stoppages. In all, there were 16 major stoppages collectively involving a total of 80,700 workers. This may sound like a lot—but in fact, it isn’t. For example, in 2018 and 2019, workers in major stoppages exceeded 400,000, respectively — five times the current number. Before 1980, over a million workers engaged in work stoppages annually.

Recent years have seen a similar decrease in workers’ union membership, to half the rate of the early 1980s. The proportion of workers belonging to unions went up in 2020, but this was because non-union members disproportionately lost their jobs. Overall, union membership has experienced a consistent and long-term downswing.

What accounts for the divergence between perception and reality? Media bubbles can give journalists and readers a mistaken outlook on what is really going on. While unions have been diminished nationwide, they have increased in journalism specifically, leading to more coverage of the labor beat. Social media also plays a role in that labor stories frequently go viral, making the labor movement seem more prominent than it is. 

Why does this matter? For one, the misperception of union strength holds negative implications for policy reform.

On the left, this fallacy means declaring victory too early. If we see an unprecedented wave of union activity, there is a limited need for structural reforms to grow the strength of unions. Though the data shows this is not the case, the false narrative alone can affect the priorities of progressive activists and politicians.

For example, while many liberals lament the failure of the Senate to pass the “Build Back Better” Act, most commentary has focused on the end of the expanded Child Tax Credit or the need for climate provisions. The legislation also incorporated several labor reforms, most notably the PRO Act, which would improve workers’ ability to unionize by reforming union election rules, limiting “right-to-work” laws, and making it possible for independent contractors to unionize. Passing this would be a modest yet much-needed victory for the union movement. Still, it is getting relatively little media attention. 

On the right, many political figures are reflexively anti-union and oppose any legislative or regulatory changes that make it easier for workers to organize. If conservatives recognized the present and problematic weakness of the union movement, they might see that the pendulum has swung too far. Workers’ independence continues to be outpaced by their employers’ power. Leveling the playing field and enabling employees to obtain a bigger piece of the pie would not have dire implications for the national economy. Greater union strength would likely lead to more “idleness” — time dedicated to work stoppages — but it historically hasn’t corresponded with worse economic growth. On average, the peak idling numbers seen in the ’50s and ’60s coincided with greater annual real GDP (%) increases than rates seen during the pre-pandemic Trump era.

It is worth noting that while union power remains low, their popularity is at an all-time high. Red and purple states like Ohio and Missouri have passed referendums increasing union rights by wide margins. If conservatives want to continue to gain strength among the working class, they will need to move from rhetorical support to actual changes in policy prioritization. Conservatives have little to fear from a revitalized union movement, and much to gain.

The decline in union power does not have a single explanation or a single solution. New legislation like the PRO Act will not be sufficient on its own, and the same goes for greater organizing and widespread media campaigns. A comprehensive policy portfolio is required and won’t necessarily be straightforward to enact. But at the very least, acknowledging that the problem continues to exist can be the first step of progress.

Darling is an Employment Policy Fellow at the Niskanen Center and Raderman is an Employment Policy Analyst at the Niskanen Center.

Tags Labor relations PRO Act right to work Unions

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