Union Membership Resumes Its Fall

Union membership fell by almost 2% in 2021 as employment rose by over 3%. That took union density—the share of the workforce belonging to unions—down from 10.8% in 2020 to 10.3% last year, where it was in 2019. Density rose in 2020 because more nonunion workers lost their jobs in the covid crisis than their unionized counterparts, but 2021’s return to employment undid that.

For the private sector, just 6.1% of workers were unionized last year, down from 6.3% in 2020, an all-time low for a series that goes back to 1900. (Official numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics began in 1983; I’ve assembled figures for earlier years from various sources.) Public sector density also fell, from 34.8% to 33.9%, not quite a record low. But the number of government workers organized in unions fell by 2.7%, almost four times as much as private sector members. The full history is graphed below.

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Latest Data On Unionization Is A Wake-Up Call To Lawmakers

Workers essentially have two sources of potential power vis-à-vis their employers: a union or the implicit threat that they can quit and take another job. During the last year, employers have been forced to compete for workers in a way that has not happened since the end of the 1990s. Workers gained leverage because the American Rescue Plan Act has generated a strong recovery from the COVID-19 downturn with substantial demand for workers at the same time that millions of workers are out of the labor force due to health and safety concerns or pandemic-related care responsibilities. As a result of this increased leverage, workers have seen strong wage growth and have been able to quit jobs in record numbers and take jobs that are better for them.

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After Sale, Valley Proteins Workers Continue Fight For Workplace Justice

Valley Proteins, the Virginia-based rendering company at the center of an ongoing union organizing effort and a large class action lawsuit over alleged wage theft, has been sold. On Dec. 28, sustainable food processing multinational Darling Ingredients, headquartered in Texas, announced it was acquiring the privately owned Valley Proteins in a $1.1 billion deal.

But current and former Valley Proteins employees are fighting to ensure that the sale doesn’t provide cover for a company they say has long fostered a toxic and abusive work environment that has led to exploitative, unsafe conditions across its plants — a point driven home by the deaths of two workers over the summer.

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Workers Are The Best Guarantors Of Their Own Safety

Officials in Bangladesh have filed murder charges against some of the people involved in the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory that killed more than 1,100 mostly women workers, and injured thousands of others under circumstances almost too cruel to fathom.

It doesn’t require speaking for the deceased to imagine that they would hope not only for justice for themselves, but for whatever actions are necessary to prevent such a disaster happening to others. Are we seeing some of those actions? Are real lessons being learned from what’s been called the garment industry’s deadliest disaster?

Joining us now to discuss these issues is Barbara Briggs, associate director of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights—where, I will note, I am a board member.

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Chicago’s COVID-19 Fight With Teachers Hangs Over A Second Week

Disputed issues included testing and metrics to close schools. The Chicago Teachers Union wants the option to revert to districtwide remote instruction, and most members have refused to teach in-person until there’s an agreement, or the latest COVID-19 spike subsides. But Chicago leaders reject districtwide remote learning, saying it’s detrimental and schools are safe. Instead, Chicago opted to cancel classes as a whole two days after students returned from winter break.

Chicago Public Schools face the same pandemic issues as other districts nationwide, with more reverting to remote learning as infections soar and staff members are sidelined. But the situation in union-friendly Chicago has been amplified in a labor dispute that’s familiar to families in the mostly low-income Black and Latino district who have seen disruptions during a similar safety protocol fight last year, a 2019 strike and a one-day work stoppage in 2016.

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After Years Of Setbacks, US Labor Demonstrates Its Power

2021 was a historic year for labor in the US. An eruption of strikes, major contract wins, and workers quitting low-wage jobs in unprecedented numbers all signaled that workers en masse are ready to reclaim their power. Workers organized union drives across nearly every industry, pushed for union reforms, and elected new union leadership, speaking volumes to their desire for a more democratic workplace.

For many workers, the pandemic revealed the cruelty of capitalism. Mainstream media and politicians campaigned for a return to business as usual during this second year of COVID. In particular, workers, called “essential” and “heroes” during the pandemic, were expected to continue sacrificing the most while receiving the least in pay and benefits.

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Unions Are Not Only Good For Workers

We know that unions promote economic equality and build worker power, helping workers to win increases in pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions.

But that’s not all unions do. Unions also have powerful effects on workers’ lives outside of work.

In this report, we document the correlation between higher levels of unionization in states and a range of economic, personal, and democratic well-being measures. In the same way unions give workers a voice at work, with a direct impact on wages and working conditions, the data suggest that unions also give workers a voice in shaping their communities. Where workers have this power, states have more equitable economic structures, social structures, and democracies.

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Who Might Strike In 2022?

2021 saw high-profile strikes and contract battles that put unions in the public spotlight. And 2022 could potentially be more explosive.

Workers are already sensing their increased leverage in a tight labor market. They’ll be feeling the squeeze of record inflation while their employers rake in profits. There’s every reason to hold the line against concessions, or to win back what they gave away before.

A Bloomberg analysis in November found that nearly 200 large union contracts (covering at least 1,000 workers) would expire between then and the end of 2022. Together these contracts cover 1.3 million workers—and there are hundreds of thousands more covered under the hundreds of smaller contracts that are also expiring.

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Low Wages And Exploitative Conditions Are Sparking Graduate Student Strikes

Many graduate students find themselves caught between these multiple fronts: burdened with past student debt, earning sub-living-wage pay in their present work and facing dwindling future opportunities. Universities have grown over-reliant on graduate students and other contingent faculty to maintain a pool of low-cost labor. But an upswell of organizing activity in the last year indicates that graduate students have been emboldened to take a collective stand against the precarity and untenable conditions that mar the academic experience in the U.S.

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Auto Workers Win Direct Democracy In Referendum

The members of the United Auto Workers have voted overwhelmingly to move to a direct voting system for choosing their union leadership—“one member, one vote.” With all votes counted as of December 2, direct elections had the support of 63.6 percent of voters.

It’s a historic win for reformers in one of the nation’s most important unions, where members have pushed for this change for decades.

The referendum is the product of a consent decree between the UAW and the U.S. Department of Justice, after a years-long series of prosecutions of top union officials on corruption charges ranging from embezzling union funds for personal use to accepting bribes from an employer, FCA (formerly Chrysler, now Stellantis), in exchange for accepting contract terms more favorable for the company.

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Kellogg’s Union Workers Reject New Contract

Hundreds of striking union workers at four Kellogg’s cereal plants in the US have overwhelmingly voted to reject a tentative agreement on a five-year contract negotiated between the union and the company, extending a strike that started in early October.

Roughly 1,400 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union “have spoken”, union president Anthony Shelton said in a statement on 7 December. “The strike continues.”

The union is “grateful for the outpouring of fraternal support we received from across the labor movement for our striking members at Kellogg’s,” he added. “Solidarity is critical to this fight.”

Striking employees in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Tennessee produce products like Rice Krispies, Rasin Bran, Froot Loops, Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes.

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‘Tell the Bosses We’re Coming’

The ongoing debate about reviving the U.S. labor movement tries to grapple with the devastating decline in the union membership rate from one-third of the workforce in the 1950s to less than 11% today. In this discussion, occasionally a book comes along that is a great combination of labor history, thoughtful analysis of union organizing, and suggestions for ways forward. Shaun Richman’s Tell the Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the Twenty-First Century is such a book.

Richman is the Program Director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at the State University of New York Empire State College. He brings the unique perspective of a veteran organizer who stepped away from union work to rethink organizing strategy and the legal framework in which unions operate.

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When Scabs Are A Danger To Public Health

A dozen oil workers rally in front of the United Metro Energy (UMEC) terminal in Brooklyn on their 113th day on strike August 10. They’re fighting one of the largest suppliers of heating oil and motor fuels in New York. The strike began months prior, on April 19. After workers spent one of the hottest summers in decades on the picket line, the rally provided a much-needed morale boost. The workers were joined by dozens of supporters, including fellow Teamsters and some perhaps unexpected allies — four of New York City’s elected democratic socialists, all of whom campaigned for the drastic reduction of fossil fuel use.

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Bolivian Organizations Reject Call For Strike And Destabilization

Social organizations and various Bolivian unions rejected this Friday the call for a national strike for next November 8, made by sectors of the opposition that participated in the 2019 coup d’état, as well as any attempt that seeks to destabilize the country. Union leaders branded this call as illegitimate, stating that it aims to affect the economic reactivation of the South American country, in the aftermath of the de facto government and in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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Kellogg Workers Are Still On Strike In Memphis And Across The Country

As the sun rose in Memphis on October 18, Rodigah Blaylock stood in the brisk air outside the Kellogg plant with her fellow union members, waving signs that read “We Stand Strong” and “Equality For All.” Some drivers passing by blew their horns in support. Blaylock and other members of the Local 252-G union have been on this picket line since October 5, when members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) launched a national strike at factories that produce Kellogg’s cereals. The company-wide strike also spans factories in Omaha, Nebraska; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Battle Creek, Michigan.

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