Michigan’s unionization rate grew in 2020, as fewer unionized workers lost jobs during pandemic

By: - January 26, 2021 2:50 pm

“One Job Should be Enough” sign from Unite Here union | Susan J. Demas

Unionization rates grew in Michigan in 2020, reflecting a trend that also happened across the nation, according to a summary data report released Jan. 22 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

In 2019, 10.3% of U.S. workers were in a union. That percentage rose slightly to 10.8% in 2020, according to the report. In Michigan, the union membership rate grew from 13.6% (589,000) of the workforce in 2019 to 15.2% (604,000) in 2020, per state-by-state figures.

That’s good news for labor unions, but it’s important to make note of a crucial caveat: While the percentage of unionized workers rose, the overall number of U.S. workers represented by unions declined by 321,000 last year to 14.3 million. 

If that’s slightly confusing, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C. think tank, explains it like this: While unionization levels did indeed drop in 2020, unionization rates rose because workers belonging to unions experienced less job losses than non-union workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Where workers have been able to act collectively and bargain through their union, they have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, and paid sick time, during the pandemic,” said EPI Director of Policy Heidi Shierholz. “Due to this, unionized workers have had a voice in how their employers have navigated the pandemic, including negotiating for terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs. This likely played a role in limiting overall job loss among unionized workers.”


The EPI also indicated unionization rates grew in 2020 because industries with typically lower unionization rates, such as leisure and hospitality, lost larger amounts of jobs. On the other hand, areas like the public sector — which usually have higher unionization rates — were able to retain more jobs.

Even with the upticks, the rates don’t come close to those seen in 1983, the first year for which comparable data on unions is available. In that year, the national union membership rate was 20.1% and there were 17.7 million union workers, according to the BLS.

In a statement about the BLS data reports, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber called on Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a labor law reform bill that aims to strengthen unions and give workers more collective bargaining rights and power during disputes.

“Twenty-twenty was a year where we saw working men and women hailed as heroes because of their dedication to serving others,” Bieber said. “Through this struggle, many of them chose to organize and join unions because they realized that workers are stronger when they stand collectively together to confront any challenge.”

Bieber also referred to the Trump administration’s labor agenda as “anti-worker” and said the outcome of November’s general election — President Joe Biden’s win — is a gain for the U.S. workforce. 

“Now it’s time for us to build on those gains, by investing in fixing infrastructure, getting help to folks who need it right now, and getting vaccines in the arms of working people so we can recover from the pandemic and get back to work,” Bieber said.

Biden signed on Friday an executive order to roll back the Trump administration’s 2018 rule that restricted federal collective bargaining, i.e. how a federal employee may negotiate a salary. The restrictions had been met with a slew of lawsuits and criticism from labor organizations.

Biden also signed on Friday an executive order which starts off a process of requiring federal employees to be paid at least $15 an hour.

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C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore

C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.