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Which Unions Won or Lost in 2020

Data shows new union contracts averaged a 3.2% raise for 2020

Brian Young's picture
Apr 14, 2021

2020 was a tough year for workers. Work moved out of the office and into people’s homes, there was record unemployment especially in the travel industry, and some workers were put on the frontlines in jobs that were never meant to be frontline work. New reports from the Department of Labor have provided some data on just what a rough year 2020 was for union workers.

As UCOMM previously reported, union membership fell 2.2% in 2020. While this was bad, it was significantly lower than the rate of non-union workers who dropped out of the workforce. To figure out which industries were especially hurt by these job losses, Bloomberg law looked at unions' LM-2 filings to see which international unions faced the steepest member loss and which ones came out of the pandemic relatively unscathed. The numbers list below represent both members who have decided to leave the union and members who are currently unemployed.

In total, they found that at least 13 of the largest unions lost some members in 2020. As would be expected, the largest loss came from UNITE HERE, which saw a 55% drop means that 169,000 members were lost. UNITE HERE represents 308,000 hotel, casino, and other hospitality workers. At one point during the pandemic, the union said that 98% of their members were laid off so there has been some progress in getting members back to work. Many of these jobs have not yet come back as states like New York and California still have not fully reopened and demand in major resort areas has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Another union that was hard hit was the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) which represents 59,000 pilots at 35 US and Canadian airlines. They suffered a loss of about 5% of their membership. Unions like ALPA spent much of 2020 pushing Congress to pass relief for the airlines to avoid layoffs and were relatively successful in getting both the CARES Act and an airline relief bill passed in December. Some airlines offered retirement incentives to prevent layoffs likely leading to some of the losses in membership for ALPA.

The Teamsters, the fourth largest union in the country, saw its membership drop by 9% meaning that they lost 123,000 workers. Some of these job losses were likely in areas like school bus drivers who were laid off as schools went remote and stayed remote for the fall semester. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) also saw significant losses of 13% or about 44,000 workers. IAM was hard hit when 25,000 members were laid off from Boeing as demand for planes dropped due to travel restrictions and the company lost a record $12 billion as they dealt with the fallout from issues with the 737 Max.

Interestingly, RWDSU and SEIU also saw losses in membership of 7.56% and 5.45% respectively. Both unions largely represent workers who were deemed essential during the pandemic, although RWDSU does also represent workers at places like department stores which were hit hard during the pandemic, and SEIU likely lost members who work in building services as many office buildings remained closed or with fewer tenants in them.

The global slowdown in construction and the continued move away from coal also came back to bite US workers. The United Mine Workers of America reported that four of their mines closed in 2020 putting 2,000 union members out of work. This resulted in a 3.79% drop in membership in 2020. The Steelworkers also felt the effects of a weaker market for steel, much of which comes from mills powered by US coal, which lost 6% of their membership. The slowdown in construction also hit LIUNA which saw a 1.65% decrease and the Painters who had a 1.82% decrease.

The news wasn’t all bad as AFSCME reported a very slight increase of 0.007% in members. These gains were likely from the unions' continued push to convert all government workers to full-time members and from increases in state and local governments hiring for pandemic-related jobs. The Post Mail Handlers, which are affiliated with LIUNA also reported a 9.2% increase in membership. While still losing some members, the UAW also managed to make it through the pandemic and a major corruption scandal relatively unscathed, only losing 1% of their membership or about 1,800 workers. Throughout the pandemic, the three union US automakers remained relatively stable reducing the need for layoffs.

“The bottom line is that the UAW ended the year balanced with modest growth and the strike fund continued to grow at a healthy pace,” Secretary-Treasurer Ray Curry said in a statement. “In addition, with our new stringent internal and external auditing, members can be assured that these financial results reflect the solid way in which the union has handled such a challenging year.”

The pandemic also gave unions the chance to show their importance by fighting for hazard pay, PPE, and increased safety procedures.

 “We’ve got a lot of health-care workers, sanitation, corrections, and they weren’t getting proper PPE,” or personal protective equipment, said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which gained a small amount of members. “We were trying to protect their jobs every single day. So, clearly, they saw the advantage of a union, because if the union was not there, they wouldn’t have had a voice, they wouldn’t have had a seat at the table.”

This report is just a small glimpse into the larger impact of the pandemic on unions since only some unions report their numbers in March, with more data coming out in September. Only unions that represent private-sector workers are included, although unions that represent both private and public employees, like AFSCME, file these forms as well.

All of the news isn’t bad from 2020 as Bloomberg also found that first-year wage increases, among the 840 union contracts ratified in 2020, was 3.1%. While this was down slightly from the 3.3% in 2018 and 2019, the small decrease means that unions were not making huge concessions like they did following the 2008 financial crash. Back then wage increases bottomed out at 1.4% in 2011. Even as recently as 2017, unions were only seeing 2.7% increases.

The report found that unions that negotiated their contracts in the fourth quarter of 2020 ended up doing better with an average increase of 3.2%. In quarter 3 the increase was 3%, quarter 2 it was 2.9% and quarter 1 was 3.4%. Much of quarter 1 occurred before the pandemic hit and the economy collapsed.

Nationally wages overall increased by 6.9%, but that number is heavily inflated because many low-wage earners were removed from the workforce in 2020. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that about 80% of the 9.6 million net jobs that were lost in 2020 were held by wage earners in the bottom 25% of the wage distribution. The 6.9% was down though from the 7.2% increase between 2019 and 2020.

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