Pandemic boosts union density

Union density—the share of employed workers belonging to unions—rose in 2020 for the first time since 2007 and 2008. Before that, you have to go back to 1979 to find another uptick. Those four years are the only increases in density since the modern BLS series begins in 1964. Sadly, though, the rise wasn’t the result of any organizing victories. Union membership declined by 2.2% last year—but the pandemic drove down employment even more, 6.7%. As a result, density rose from 10.3% to 10.8%, bringing it back to where it was in… Read More

Unemployment claims surge

Last week, 3.3 million people* applied for unemployment insurance. That’s five times the previous record weekly number, a series that goes back to 1967. Compared to monthly averages and expressed as a percent of employment, which is how it’s shown in the graph below, that’s over two-and-a-half times the previous record. As of the previous week, 1.8 million people were drawing unemployment insurance, so the number of new claimants is almost twice the number already on benefits, or 182% as many, to be precise. That ratio has never exceeded 26% before. This… Read More

Union density update: back to 1900 levels

Sam Gindin pointed me to a history of private sector union density—the percent of workers belonging to unions—going back to 1900. (They’re credit to Troy and Sheflin’ Union Sourcebook, a standard source.) No doubt these numbers are more approximate than recent ones, but here’s a striking fact: 2018’s level, 6.4%, is a hair below 1900’s level, 6.5%. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say they’re the same. Here’s an update of yesterday’s graph. Back where the 20th century started. That’s 118 years of progress for you.

Union density hits record low

Union density—the share of employed workers belonging to unions—fell to 10.5% in 2018, the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the data in its modern form in 1964, down from 2017’s 10.7%. (See graph below.) After rising 0.1 point in 2017, private sector density fell back to match 2016’s 6.4%, the lowest since stats began in 1929. Republican governors’ war on public sector unions is having a visible effect: just 33.9% of government workers belonged to unions last year, the lowest since 1978, when membership was on an upswing—an… Read More

Sadly, there is no strike wave

In a September 8 post to the Jacobin website, Eric Dirnbach announced that “US workers are striking again.” In the piece, he discloses: That’s why it’s fascinating that in 2018, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in the number of large work stoppages. I count sixteen for the first half of the year, including one lockout, which if this trend continues, puts us on track for thirty-two for the full year. The number of large work stoppages has not been thirty or more since the year 2000. It would be lovely if this were true, but it’s not…. Read More

Contingency: a follow-up

My post on contingent and “alternative” work (and the demographic follow-up) annoyed some people who think the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the source of the data, is missing the point through bad definitions and bad techniques. (As am I, for using it.) According to these critics, asking people whether they expect their jobs to last the year is using the wrong definition of contingency—though it’s not clear what the right one is, since most employed people in the U.S. can be fired for no reason at all at any time. Or the… Read More

Contingency: almost every demographic is down

Someone on Twitter, reacting to my last post on contingent employment, wrote this: “Contingent workers were more than twice as likely as noncontingent workers to be under age 25.” Profitable corporations are putting lots of young people in incredibly exploitative jobs and making it normal. For the young work is a new hell, and it’s not temporary. Workers under the age of 25 are less likely to be contingent than they were 22 years ago. Here’s the detail by demographic group. The share for workers in the 20–25 age group declined more than the… Read More

No it’s not a gig economy

Despite the voluble testimony of pundits and bar companions, the world of work is not one of Uber drivers and temp workers. In fact, the share of U.S. employment accounted for by contingent and “alternative” arrangements is lower now than it was in 2005 and 1995. That testimony is derived from several original sources. For example, a much ballyhooed 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union—which is not a materially disinterested party—reported that a third of workers are freelancers. The claim of a 2016 paper by Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger that… Read More

Smaller strikes also in decline

Several readers responded to the recent post on strikes by asking if the BLS stats, which cover stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, are missing smaller-scale actions. (And I should say that I’m being imprecise by calling all stoppages “strikes,” since the figures also include lockouts.) Alas, no. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service publishes data on all work stoppages, regardless of the number of workers involved. The numbers from 1984 through 2016 are graphed below. Smaller strikes peaked at 1,142 in 1985, which looks big by recent standards. If the trajectory… Read More

The disappearing strike

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures released this morning, last year saw the second-smallest number of major strikes in recorded history: seven. This is close to the record low set in 2009, five—in the depths of the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate was approaching 10%. Last year’s average unemployment rate was less than half that, 4.3%. Here’s the grim history of the decline of labor’s most powerful weapon in two graphs: The number of days of “idleness”—a curiously moralizing word for an instrument of class struggle—wasn’t as close to a… Read More

Janus risk

Chris Maisano reminded me on Facebook of something I forgot to mention in today’s union density post—the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in the Janus case. I appended this to the closing paragraph of the original: A major threat to that [getting union density up]: the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, which would make public sector union dues optional. Should the Court decide against the union, which is almost certain given the configuration of the cast of robed ghouls, many workers would stop paying dues and not bother to join the… Read More

Shocker: unions hold their own

Unions had a pretty good year in 2017: they didn’t lose any ground. According to the latest edition of the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual survey, released this morning, 10.7% of employed wage and salary workers were members of unions, unchanged from last year. There was a mild uptick in the share of private-sector workers represented by unions (aka union density), from 6.4% to 6.5%. Density was unchanged at 34.4% for public sector workers—mildly surprising, given the war on labor being conducted by Republican governors and legislatures across the country. As the… Read More

How employed are we?

A few weeks ago, I made fun of Sean Spicer for this word salad: I think there’s a question between the total number of people that are employed, and the President’s comments in the past have reflected that his big concern was getting to the bottom of how many people are working in this country, and that the denominator—meaning the percentage rate of the total number of people—is not the most accurate reflection of how many people are employed in this country. And, God knows, he deserves a strong dose of mockery…. Read More

Varieties of unemployment

This is the first in a series of lbo-news posts about the state of the U.S. job market. On March 10, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the employment report for February showing a robust job market, Donald Trump finally liked the numbers. His press agent, Sean Spicer, quoted him as saying “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Trump himself retweeted Matt Drudge’s gloss on the news that employers added 235,000 jobs in the month as proof that America was already “GREAT AGAIN.” That was… Read More


The strike—labor’s most powerful weapon against capital, except maybe sabotage—is disappearing even more rapidly than unions, which is saying a lot. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that there were 15 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers in 2016. That’s 1 above the average of the past five years, and down 96% from the average of the late 1940 and 1950s. (Stoppages include both strikes and lockouts—the data series doesn’t distinguish between the two. The overwhelming majority are strikes. Notable exceptions in recent years have been in professional sports,… Read More