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What’s going on with labor unions?

Writers, coal miners, railway workers, UPS drivers—labor unions across the United States have made headlines for demanding higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. A labor union is a group of employees who use a collective voice to strengthen their ability to negotiate with their employer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The U.S. has a rich history of labor movements; for example, unions are responsible for federal laws around workplace safety requirements and child labor laws.

@theU spoke about the state of labor unions with Megan Reynolds, associate professor, Department of Sociology in the College of Social and Behavioral Science. Reynolds’ research encompasses the relationship between health, inequalities and politics, including labor and labor relations.

Does the U.S. have a history of labor unions?

In the wake of the Great Depression, the 1936 National Labor Relations (“Wagner”) Act was passed explicitly granting unionization and collective bargaining rights to U.S. workers. World War II labor shortages allowed workers to use Wagner in their favor and by 1945, union membership increased four-fold to ten million workers—roughly 1/3 of the non-agricultural workforce.

The increasing strength and scandal surrounding labor unions roused distaste and, in 1947, Congress revived pre-war efforts to curb unions. The result was the Taft-Hartley Act, which placed new restrictions on labor unions. This was only one of a mounting list of challenges facing unions: Globalization, the rise of “human resource” departments, leadership struggles, recession, de-industrialization, deregulation, and political hostility. By the mid-70’s unions were in grave trouble and began a precipitous decline to their current level of roughly 10% of the national workforce.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of union membership?

Research suggests that unions are associated with more favorable wages (~ 15% higher) and benefits (retirement and employer-sponsored health plans), as well as greater job security. Unionized workplaces tend to be safer than their non-unionized counterparts. In my own research, I have found that the self-assessed health and mental health of union members tends to be better than non-union members all other things equal. Newer research has begun to show that the health benefits of unionization may be cumulative in nature, manifesting most strongly in morbidity and mortality risk later in life.

In terms of drawbacks, there are few for individual members. One is that unionized workers lose their right to negotiate one-on-one with management. And union members are obligated to pay dues– unless they work in what is known as right-to-work states, where employees can skip the dues while still reaping any union benefits. The major critiques of labor unions are more about their effects on business and the economy. Critics argue that unions make workplaces less competitive by raising labor costs and making it harder to fire underperformers, that they reduce employment by limiting the labor supply, and that they increase the cost of living by pushing employers to raise prices on goods and services to cover higher labor costs. But research suggests unions actually increase worker hours, allowing for economic growth even in the face of higher unemployment numbers. And, although its precise role in inflation is debated, the post-COVID era has revealed that businesses often raise prices beyond what is necessary to cover increased costs for reasons that have nothing to do with unions.

Has there been an uptick in union strikes over the last few years? Why?

Strike activity was high in the mid-1970s, but declined to a low of 27,000 workers on strike in 2020. We appear to be in an upturn — 80,000 workers were on strike in 2021 and 120,000 in 2022. Early data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that numbers are likely to rise further in 2023. To put things in perspective, however, this is still a small fraction of the nearly 1.5 million strikers in 1974.

The rise of strikes in the past couple of years is largely due to labor shortages that have increased the bargaining position of workers, reducing the risks typically associated with strike activity.  Nevertheless, the leverage that workers have remains limited. As evidence, despite recent high-profile cases such as Starbucks and Amazon, union density—the percentage of the working population that is unionized—actually declined from 10.3% to 10.1% from 2021 to 2022 as more workers joined non-unionized jobs than unionized jobs.

Actors and screenwriters in the WGA and SAG/AFTRA unions are attempting to negotiate contracts in an age of streaming services and artificial intelligence. What’s up with AI?

Labor unions have always mobilized to fight the effects of “disruptive technologies” that threaten job quality and security, such as manufacturing automation. AI is no different, and it is likely we will see work stoppages in industries beyond entertainment with widespread adoption and increasing use of AI among corporations. These predictions are already coming to fruition as reflected in AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) leadership’s recent rallying cry.

European countries have higher proportion of union members in their countries. Can we say if there are any differences between our countries as a result?

Unions in Europe have also experienced a decline in recent decades. But, yes, they remain more unionized than the U.S. The most obvious consequence of this is a higher standard of living. Unions reduce poverty and wage gaps. Their benefits also extend beyond union members to non-union workers due to spillover effects that spur competitive employment conditions. Perhaps this is why happiness appears to be higher in more heavily unionized countries.

Are there other ways that unions impact society?

Even more conservative political regimes in Europe generally afford more rights and benefits to workers than in the U.S.—for example, paid vacation, sick, holiday and parental leave; formal employment contracts with dismissal protections; etc. In the U.S., by contrast, “pro-labor” initiatives such as these are more controversial. I think that has somewhat stymied progress on understanding whether and how working-class power—including organized labor– affects us here in America.

Research has only in the past ten years or so begun to take up these kinds of questions. An interesting report published in 2021 by the Economic Policy Institute suggested that state-level union density impacts economic, but also, personal and democratic well-being measures. I am currently working on a study with a colleague at Florida State University that echoes these findings by showing a state’s overall health ranking is likely to be higher where there are strong unions accompanied by high Democratic legislative representation. Of course, unions are just one of many labor market institutions, so we must also attend to the effects of other related political arrangements that protect workers, such as the minimum wage, active labor market policies, employment protection legislation, unemployment insurance and the like.


  • Lisa Potter Research communications specialist, University of Utah Communications