State of the U.S. Unions 2021

Eric Dirnbach
8 min readFeb 19, 2021

This is my annual roundup of labor data on union membership, elections and strikes. How is the labor movement doing?

At the beginning of each year a bunch of annual U.S. labor data is released and this is a good time to see what it tells us about how the labor movement is doing. We’ll examine data on union membership, NLRB elections, BLS large strike data and FMCS private sector strike data. My summary from last year can be found here.

Union Membership

In January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its annual Union Members Summary. Labor movement membership was down 2.2%, but because the overall workforce was down an even larger 6.7% (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the union membership rate, or union density, rose slightly to 10.8%. As the BLS states,

In 2020, the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions — the union membership rate — was 10.8 percent, up by 0.5 percentage point from 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.3 million in 2020, was down by 321,000, or 2.2 percent, from 2019. However, the decline in total wage and salary employment was 9.6 million (mostly among nonunion workers), or 6.7 percent.

Both the private and public sectors saw slight increases in union density – the private sector up from 6.2% to 6.3%, and the public sector up from 33.6% to 34.8%. The rate for all workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, which also includes non-union members, is slightly higher for all these numbers.

Nearly every year for decades, union density has declined, so this uptick is unusual and likely due to the special pandemic circumstances. The Economic Policy Institute sees this density increase as due in part to unions being able to better protect their members’ jobs during the pandemic, and disproportionate job losses in less unionized sectors.

Here’s a chart showing the union density trend for the last century. The density decline has been happening since its peak in the 1950s. Moreover, private sector union density is where it was in the early 1900s. This decline has contributed to the rise of wealth inequality in the last half century.

From LBO News from Doug Henwood
Eric Dirnbach

Labor Movement Researcher, Activist, Campaigner, Organizer, Educator, Writer & Socialist, based in New York City. @EricDirnbach