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Commentary: Union density rises in 2020, while job numbers shrink

Commentary by Sean Orr |
March 12, 2021
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Chicago, IL - In late January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its annual report on union density for 2020. The report’s finding includes some interesting facts - namely, that the union membership rate (the percentage of workers who belong to unions) went up for the first time since 2008, rising half a percent to 10.8% of the working class. 

To date, it is the best report yet of the state of our movement coming out of the crisis of a century - the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. What is included in the report reveals a great deal. What is left out begs a greater question.

What’s in the report

At face value, the rise in the union membership rate is good news. But reading through the report reveals a more complex truth. There are fewer union members today (14.3 million) than there were at the start of 2020 - 321,000 less, in fact. A decline in union membership and a rise in the union membership rate is only possible when the broader working class is suffering through an intense crisis - and it has suffered. The COVID-19 pandemic provoked the worst economic collapse in our country since the Great Depression. 9.5 million workers lost their jobs as the economy buckled. 

The truth to draw from this is a well-known one: you are safer from the economic crises of capitalism as a union member than as an unorganized worker. Throughout the history of our movement, workers have organized to protect the livelihoods of themselves and their families from the anarchy of the market. 2020 proved that this historic truth remains unchanged.

The BLS report also shows that many years-long trends in the labor movement remain unchanged by COVID. For example, union density in the public sector (34.8%) is still significantly greater than in the private sector (6.3%). Public sector unions have survived an unrelenting political offensive since the 2008-2009 crisis, from austerity and privatization in the Obama years to the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision and attacks on federal employee unions under Trump. The fear of a mass exodus from the public sector unions after Janus has yet to become a reality. Surely, the renewed militancy of the public school teachers, spearheaded by the recently-passed Karen Lewis and her Chicago Teachers Union, bears a great deal of the responsibility for the enduring strength of the NEA and AFT. Regardless of ‘right-to-work’ or Janus, when workers see their unions fighting for their interests, they will pay dues. 

The report also shows that the trend towards a labor movement reflective of the diversity of the working class continues. Decades ago, men were nearly twice as likely to belong to unions as women. Today, the difference between the two has nearly disappeared (11% for men, 10.5% for women). Black workers are the most likely national group to belong to a union, and the unionization rate among Black and Latino/Chicano workers increased at a greater rate in 2020 than among white workers. The legacy of the old AFL - with its segregated locals and thick-headed focus on organizing predominantly-white skilled unions - is all but gone. The multinational working class deserves a labor movement reflective of its diversity, and while there is a great deal of work to do we are on the right track.

What the report leaves out

To understand the true scope of COVID’s impact on the labor movement, we need to go beyond the technocratic framework of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Organized workers were surely safer from the seismic shifts in the economy of the past year - but what do we know of their safety from the virus itself? 

Very early on in the pandemic, our ruling class made a conscious decision. They had the advantage of seeing what worked best against COVID-19 - a total shutdown, like what took place in China, Vietnam and several other countries. They decided that the implied combination of profit losses and government expenditures was unacceptable. The economy must continue moving. Workers must continue to show up to their jobs - many now deemed “essential,” regardless of their role in the battle against COVID. 

The ruling class decided that mass death was preferable to a short-term loss of profits or international market position. The economic chaos caused by COVID-19 even opened up new potentials for profit - this could not be passed up, human life be damned. Their determination was supported by the entire U.S. government at all levels and from both parties. Republicans embraced the logic of the capitalists like religious fanatics; the Democrats want along with it like the cowards they are. 

And so vast swathes of the working class, including 14 million union members, were transformed into conscripts in capital’s offensive to secure profits at all costs. Workers had no say in the matter. The choice offered to workers was unspeakable: risk catching the virus - and spreading it to your loved ones - or try to find another source of income just as millions of workers were losing their jobs. And so, the working class continued to work.

To date, over half a million Americans are dead. We do not know how many ‘essential workers’ are among them. Our government never bothered to keep track. Kaiser Health News did their best to track health care worker deaths from the start of the pandemic, and in late December they reported that over 2900 health care workers were killed by COVID-19. Many died because of insufficient personal protective equipment. 

In China, the socialist government declared a ‘people’s war’ against COVID-19. Every human life mattered more than a cent of private profit. In the United States, our government declared a war for profit no matter the cost. Every worker was cannon fodder for the greedy dreams of capitalists. 

In terms of economic damage, this is the worst crisis our labor movement has faced since the Great Depression. In human terms - of the loss of life, of the destruction to whole families and communities - it is the worst crisis for our movement since the Civil War. It is a time of stark, heartless realities, and we must look at them directly and name them. 

Unknown thousands of workers lost everything because a few thousand billionaires decided that profit mattered above all else. Millions more lost their livelihoods, their homes and their futures. 

This is the reality. These are conditions in which we must now operate. The ruling class has no right to rule over us. The labor movement has no choice but to recognize these truths and rebuild the movement accordingly.