Despite a decadeslong decline in union membership in the United States — attributed to several factors, including politics and a drop in manufacturing employment — labor experts see new signs of life for unions.

Photo of mortarboard hat with text on union support among graduates (Photo: © Mega Pixel/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley)
(Photo: © Mega Pixel/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley)

Six percent of U.S. workers belong to a union, down from 17% in 1983 and from 35% in 1954, a peak. But in a recent six-month period (October 2021–March 2022), petitions to unionize rose 57% from the same period a year earlier.

Applications for union elections this year are on pace to hit their highest level in a decade.

Photo of stack of books with apple on top with text on fields most and least likely to have unionization (Photo: © Elena Kharichkina/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley)
(Photo: © Elena Kharichkina/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley)

Unions represent large numbers of workers in the public administration and transportation industries and are active in representing workers in education, health care, construction and information (publishing, motion pictures, broadcasting, data processing).

The recent spike in unionization efforts comes from employees in the airline, retail and tech industries seeking a stronger voice in the workplace. Following historic votes to unionize, the labor movement now also includes delivery drivers and baristas.

Business owners and workers have strong feelings about unionization. Supporters say unions help employees negotiate better hours, pay, benefits and work conditions. Opponents say unions are expensive and hurt a business’s bottom line.

Noting that the right of every worker to have a free and fair choice to join a union is guaranteed by U.S. law, President Biden says that workers who join unions gain “power over the decisions … that affect their lives. … In a simple word, a union means there is democracy.”

Photo of the U.S. Capitol with text on unionization among government workers (Photo: © Colin Dewar/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley
(Photo: © Colin Dewar/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley)

How unions form

The National Labor Relations Act, passed during the Great Depression in 1935 and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, protects workers’ right to form a union.

The act created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent government agency that oversees and certifies workers’ votes to unionize, investigates violations of the National Labor Relations Act and resolves disputes between unions and private sector employers..

If workers at a company, government agency or organization want to form a union, there are two ways to do it:

1. If at least 30% of workers sign cards or a petition saying they want a union, the NLRB will conduct an election. If a majority of the workers then vote for a union, the board certifies the union to represent workers in collective bargaining with their employer.

2. Employers can voluntarily recognize a union based on evidence — typically signed union-authorization cards from a majority of employees.

Photo of Liz Shuler with text about women in union leadership (Photo: © Michael Dwyer/AP Images. Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley)
(Photo: © Michael Dwyer/AP Images. Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley)

What unions do

Once a union is certified and recognized, an employer is required to bargain over terms and conditions of employment with a union representative. About half of all unions take more than a year to secure their first contract with employers.

Improved pay and conditions negotiated by a union are especially important for workers who might face exclusion or discrimination, including people of color, women or people with disabilities.

Unions protect members from illegal retaliation for exercising their rights to minimum wages, overtime pay, safe working conditions, collective bargaining and a workplace free from discrimination.

What’s more, increasingly unions are opening career pathways for their members through initiatives such as pre-apprenticeship programs, which can lead to good-paying jobs.

Two charts showing union and nonunion weekly wage differences and the narrowing gender gap in union membership (Left chart: Photo: © Hurst Photo/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley. Right chart: State Dept./B. Insley)
(Left chart: Photo: © Hurst Photo/ Graphic: State Dept./B. Insley. Right chart: State Dept./B. Insley)

Freelance writer Holly Rosenkrantz wrote this article.