Union Approval High, But Anti-Union Laws Hold Back Expansion
AFGE President looks at how laws are preventing workers from organizing
This editorial was written by AFGE President Everett Kelley and first appeared in The Hill.
Unions rarely have been more popular than they are today, but anti-union labor laws are keeping union membership numbers artificially low by making it harder for workers who want to form or join a union to do so.
Indeed, a 2021 Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans approve of labor unions—the highest percentage since 1965. Support is even higher among young adults (ages 18-34), at 71 percent.
That support is translating into action as workers across the country are getting organized and fighting for better wages and working conditions. A group of Starbucks workers in Buffalo, N.Y., made history in December by becoming the first employees of the coffee chain to unionize. Amazon workers in Alabama will get another shot at forming a union after the company was found to have interfered in the April election there, while workers at four Amazon warehouses in Staten Island are collecting signatures now to win support for a union election there.
Within the government, four unions recently filed suit against the Justice Department arguing that National Guard members mobilized by the governor of Connecticut should be able to form and join a union for service performed while working for the state — a right enjoyed by other civilian state employees.
The union I lead, the American Federation of Government Employees, grew in membership for a record 27 years until the Trump administration gutted federal workers’ union rights and made it almost impossible for us to recruit new members. We’ve seen an uptick in workers voluntarily joining since President Biden restored workers’ rights in January, despite challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. After two years of decline, we recorded our first month of positive membership growth in June 2021.
Yet, despite all this action, there is a huge gap between the share of workers with union representation (12.1 percent) and the share of workers who want union representation — which has grown from 32 percent in 1995 to 48 percent in 2017, an increase of 50 percent. That’s nearly a 36 percentage point gap between Americans who want a union, and those who actually have one.
It’s easy to see why Americans would want to join a union. Data consistently show a direct link between growing union membership and declining income inequality. That’s because unions raise wages for both union members and non-members — for women in particular — and reduce racial economic disparities.
So what’s preventing those Americans who want to join a union from exercising their freedom to do so?
A major reason for the artificially low number of union members in the U.S. is our outdated labor laws that advantage anti-union companies with armies of lawyers over every day American workers. These laws are preventing Americans who want to have a union from joining or forming one in their own workplace, keeping union membership and workers’ pay artificially low. That’s the untold story that’s getting clearer every day.
And it’s why we need to do everything we can to make it easier for workers to band together and form a union if they want one.
In the federal workplace, President Biden took action to bolster union membership by forming the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment headed by Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. The administration has moved quickly to strengthen union rights for federal workers, directing agencies recently to take concrete steps to bolster union membership in the federal government and ensure workers are fully informed of their union rights.
More broadly, the House approved legislation in March that would protect the right of all U.S. workers to organize, but it’s stalled in the Senate.
If we have any hope of improving the economic situation of workers in this country and ensuring that all working Americans have the benefits and support needed to balance work and home life, then we must pass meaningful legislation protecting workers’ right to form a union.
Rank-and-file employees like the ones my union represents — VA nurses, TSA officers, FEMA specialists, Social Security representatives, and more — serve their country with honor and distinction and help make America the greatest country in the world. But for many American workers, the goal of true equality and opportunity at the work site is stubbornly out of reach due to anti-union laws.
Tell our elected leaders to reject laws that deny workers the right to organize collectively. Demand that the Senate pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and lift the voice of workers everywhere.
Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents 700,000 federal and D.C. government employees.