The American Prospect | Why Union Membership Statistics Are Stupid

Posted in In the News News

KI Associate Director, Lane Windham, comments in The American Prospect on labor activism, workers, and the shortcomings of labor statistics at telling the full story.

People are fed up at work, and are refusing to go back to business as usual after the pandemic. Thousands are organizing unions, powering the nation’s most dynamic labor upsurge of the last three decades. Workers at Starbucks and Amazon, nurses, graduate employees, truck drivers, nursing home workers, and dispensary “budtenders” are all throwing down with the union. Nearly half of workers (new window) say they would form a union tomorrow if given the chance, and young workers are especially eager.

Yet every media report on this surprising labor upswell points to an apparent contradiction. Even though workers are organizing and striking at a new level, the percentage of U.S. workers who are represented by a union is at a more than 100-year low (new window)Just over 10 percent (new window) of the nation’s workers are represented by a union, a figure that drops to a paltry 6 percent among private-sector workers. Why is labor’s reach so small when interest is so high?

Truth be told, union membership statistics are blunt and clumsy instruments with which to measure workers’ movements to build collective power. The only thing these numbers capture is the number of people who have been able to navigate the United States’ outdated and fraught labor law system to win a union election, or who have gotten a job already covered by a union contract. Union membership statistics are not a proper proxy for measuring the state of the U.S. labor movement or the vibrancy of our working class.

First, union membership statistics don’t capture the numbers of workers who attempt to form unions through our country’s antiquated labor system, but fail when employers bend and break labor law. Employers like Amazon (new window) often use thinly veiled threats, mandatory anti-union meetings, and intimidation tactics to keep workers from forming unions. In 4 out of 10 organizing efforts, workers have to file charges to try to stop their bosses’ illegal activity, and in a third of elections, employers are charged with illegally firing union supporters, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report (new window). Precious few workers make it through this fraught process, and even fewer win a first contract. Those who find themselves blocked don’t “count” in the government’s statistical measures.

Second, union membership statistics don’t capture worker activity outside of organizations with a collective-bargaining agreement. The last 15 years have seen a blossoming of experimentation with alternative labor campaigns. Though thousands of workers joined the Fight for $15 and won minimum-wage increases in many states, for example, almost none show up in union membership statistics. Those statistics also don’t count the domestic workers who won bills of rights, the taxi drivers who won debt relief, or the restaurant workers who are challenging tipping, because none have union contracts. All these workers’ activism is invisible within conventional labor statistics.

Third, the Bureau of Labor Statistics union membership numbers can’t adequately capture what’s really happening with the U.S. working class. The Great Resignation, for instance, is a remarkable development in which 33 million people have quit (new window) since the spring of 2021, and it’s not over yet. A recent Joblist survey (new window) shows that a whopping 3 out of 4 full-time employees say they plan to quit their job this year. Millions of workers are simply not accepting low-wage, no-benefits jobs that leave them feeling burned-out and insecure. People are voting with their feet and creating what amounts to a slow-moving general strike.

Finally, membership statistics don’t reveal how worker power is also determined by a nation’s larger employment system and social contract. French workers, for instance, have some of the strongest social protections in the world, and routinely take to the streets in massive general strikes. Yet only 10.8 percent of French workers are union members, among the lowest rates in Europe (new window), and comparable to the U.S. rate. The difference is that French workers won far more rights through their government.

It’s time to stop using union membership statistics as a sloppy shortcut for measuring working-class strength and power. There is no simple replacement for that (mis)measure, though a good start would be statistics that reveal how working people are actually doing. Are wages rising? Do people have health care, pensions, sick days, parental leave, child care, and security? Are workers prospering and, if not, are they mobilizing for better? Answering such questions would paint a far more accurate picture of the strength and vitality of the U.S. workers’ movement.