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Union Membership Declined Again Last Year. But Here’s Why 2021 Could Be Good for Organized Labor

6 minute read

Labor unions in the United States haven’t had much good news in recent years, but this week may have provided some reasons for optimism. The rate of unionization in the U.S. increased in 2020 for the first time in over a decade, according to new data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Jan. 22, the same day as President Joe Biden announced two new executive orders aimed at increasing worker protections.

In 2020, 10.8% of American workers belonged to a union, up from 10.3% in 2019, the new BLS report found. Still, the picture is far from rosy. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the total number of workers in unions across the U.S. dropped by 321,000 to reach a low of 14.3 million last year.

Union membership has been declining in the U.S. for decades, and the 2020 data doesn’t fully reverse that trend. But it does show that workers belonging to a union saw fewer job losses amid the pandemic than nonunion workers.

This is likely due in part to unions’ strong engagement amid the pandemic, labor experts say. In industries ranging from health care to retail to food service to tech, workers banded together and frequently demanded better working conditions last year as COVID-19 devastated the economy and forced millions of businesses to close or change their strategies.

“Union members could hold on to their jobs because they can negotiate more creative solutions to economic challenges—furloughs or reductions in hours or even early retirement or other programs to try to avoid mass layoffs,” says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.

Also impacting the statistics, however, is the fact that COVID-19 hit industries with smaller union presences, such as hospitality and leisure, especially hard. About half of the increase in the unionization rate in 2020 was the result of the pandemic’s concentrated impact on less-unionized job sectors, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute. (The other half can be attributed to union workers faring better than nonunion workers in their same industries.)

Union membership increased among state and local government workers in the past year, a particularly notable development following the 2018 Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Supreme Court decision that said government workers who choose not to join unions could not be required to pay fees to cover collective bargaining costs. Some occupations on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic—such as health care support workers, transportation workers and those in education— also saw more workers join unions in 2020. But far more workers typically say they would like to join a union than are able to do so, Givan notes.

“Although the union membership numbers show some reasons for optimism, what they really show is how much work needs to be done,” she says. “Most workers don’t have straightforward access to union representation.”

Read more: The Challenges Posed By COVID-19 Pushed Many Workers to Strike. Will the Labor Movement See Sustained Interest?

This is part of what labor advocates are hoping the Biden Administration will address. Under former President Donald Trump, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency tasked with enforcing private sector labor laws, weakened many worker protections and was viewed by unions as hostile to their cause.

Biden, who promised before he was elected to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” has already taken action toward the goal of reversing the Trump Administration’s policies. In a series of moves applauded by union groups, Biden nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former union leader, to be his Secretary of Labor and, in his first two days in the White House, Biden fired Peter Robb, the Trump-appointed general counsel of the NLRB, as well as Robb’s deputy Alice Stock, after each refused to resign.

The move to fire Robb before his term officially ended broke with precedent, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Jan. 21 that Robb had not been upholding the NLRB’s objectives.

“A union-busting lawyer by trade, Robb mounted an unrelenting attack for more than three years on workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement. “His actions sought to stymie the tens of millions of workers who say they would vote to join a union today and violated the stated purpose of the National Labor Relations Act—to encourage collective bargaining. Robb’s removal is the first step toward giving workers a fair shot again.”

Biden also signed two executive orders on Jan. 22 intended to provide economic relief to families and workers. The first executive order will call on the Department of Labor to clarify guidelines that have forced Americans who refuse to return to work over concerns about COVID-19 to lose their unemployment benefits. The order also includes measures aimed at increasing food assistance benefits and economic stimulus checks. The second order, focused on federal workers and contractors, asks agencies to develop a plan to pay federal employees at least $15 an hour and revokes three Trump orders that weakened worker protections. It also eliminates the Schedule F classification which took away protections for some civil service employees.

These orders add to Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, but many of his ambitious goals will still need to make their way through Congress where Democrats hold a razor thin majority. Unions have expressed enthusiasm about Biden’s initial steps—especially the call to pay federal employees $15 per hour.

“Too often the Black and brown workers, especially women, who keep our government running behind the scenes have been ignored and their work devalued. These courageous workers have been speaking up and making their voices heard,” SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. “It’s a breath of fresh air to have a president who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them and we look forward to seeing what else comes from the Biden administration.”

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com