Of the approximately 15 million workers in the retail industry, around 749,000 – or about 5% – were represented by a union in 2022.
That’s up slightly from the 740,000 workers represented by a union the previous year, but stable in percentage terms, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In catering, about 1.7% of workers were represented by a union, ie about 148,000 against 129,000 the previous year.
The numbers indicate that despite these small gains, the recent movement among retail and service workers sparked by Starbucks in late 2021 still has a long way to go.
While a number of petitions to file unions at Amazon warehouses, for example, only one – in Staten Island – has been formally formed. Starbucks Workers United, the effort that started in Buffalo, New York, and has spread across the country, has 370 stores that have filed for union elections, or about 12% of the total number of locations.
John Ahlquist, a professor at UC San Diego, said that while much attention has been paid to organizing movements like Starbucks and Amazon, these movements have not yet gained enough momentum to move the needle on global unionization.
“The high-profile events that we heard about are still happening, and wouldn’t have really shown up in this data anyway,” he said.
What powers the numbers
Overall, about 273,000 more U.S. residents belonged to a union in 2022 than the year before, for a total of about 14.3 million people. This represents approximately 10.1% of all workers. But that’s a record low, down from 10.3% a year earlier.
The BLS says this membership rate was disproportionately impacted by the 5.3 million people who became wage earners in 2021, representing an influx of people re-entering the workforce amid the economic recovery. related to the pandemic.
Nathan Wilmers, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management whose work focuses on income inequality and the organization of work, said union membership rates have been steadily declining since the 1980s. 1% of workers were represented by a union in 1983, according to the oldest comparable data from the BLS.
“The decline in membership goes back decades,” Wilmers said.
Still, Wilmers said the increase in raw union membership and the increase in the number of candidates filing for union elections to the National Labor Relations Board indicate that there has been an increase in union activity. since the pandemic lockdown era.
Part of the reason that momentum hasn’t yet shown in the BLS numbers may be because organized workers haven’t yet secured a collective bargaining agreement with their employers, Wilmers said. Those delays can last anywhere from one to three years, Wilmers said.
Going forward, however, having more people involved in unions could help galvanize future organizing efforts.
“The flip side of the slight decline and union density is that the absolute number of union members has increased with the increase in overall employment, which means that it is true that more people are paying union dues, and therefore more trade union capacity for future action. than there was, say last year,” Wilmers said.
The data also shows that union members, in some cases, earn more than their non-union peers. Overall median weekly earnings for union members in 2022 was $1,216, compared to $1,029 for non-union workers, or 18% higher.
In food service, unionized workers earned a median weekly of $791, compared to $665 for their non-unionized counterparts, or 19% more. For those working in retail, however, the 2022 median weekly wage was lower: unionized workers earned $780, compared to $815 for non-unionized workers.
UC San Diego’s Ahlquist said Starbucks workers, in particular, have been adept at calling strikes and coordinating their efforts across the country, which bodes well for their cause.
But it could be increasingly difficult for retail and service workers to organize as companies continue to develop a “playbook” to curb those efforts – a federal court case is currently pending. course in Pennsylvania following allegations by the NLRB that Starbucks interfered with workers’ organizing efforts. .
“This includes firing organizers and threatening workers if they vote. This includes in camera meetings with your workers. All these types of things, some of which are borderline legal and some of which are illegal, but there’s really no meaningful penalty for that,” Ahlquist said.