Analysis: Union Membership Declined in 2021 — and Has Been Dropping Since the 1980s. No Amount of Spin Can Change That

Sign up here for The 74’s daily newsletter. Donate here to support The 74's independent journalism. 

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership last week. It didn’t get much play in the press, because how many different ways can you report the same old story?

There were 50,000 fewer union members in the private sector than in 2020, even though the economy added 4,225,000 new salaried workers. In local government, a category that includes most public school employees, there were 75,000 fewer union members, though there were 180,000 additional employees.

This trend has been going on with hardly a break for as long as we have been keeping these statistics. Since 1983, the U.S. economy has added 48.1 million workers and unions have lost 3.7 million members.

The one area of steady membership levels over the decades has been in local government. But now, even that is starting to sag. There are fewer than 4 million union members working for local governments for the first time since 1988.

One might think such tragic numbers would lead to some self-reflection on the unions’ part. That isn’t the case.

“Today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report on union membership makes it clear that American labor laws are unquestionably broken,” said the AFL-CIO in a press release.

Unsurprisingly, the union-backed Economic Policy Institute echoed that position. “The substantial level of union activity in 2021 (including organizing drives and strikes), along with polling data showing the large share of workers who would like a union at their workplace, demonstrate that workers want and value unions,” it opined.

The notion that we should ignore the evidence of our own eyes in the service of what unions would like to be true seeped into reports all of last year.

Here’s why 2021 could be a big year for labor unions,” reported CNN last March.

“With the American public’s popular support behind essential workers, a new union movement is perfectly primed to rise up in this country,” stated the Brown Political Review.

America Is in the Midst of a Dramatic Labor Resurgence,” screamed a headline from The New Republic in October.

Unions making comeback as more workers feel undervalued,” reported Boston 25 News just two weeks ago.

All these folks seem to subscribe to the idea that if you keep predicting the same thing over and over, eventually it will come true. After all, the world will end someday. But it is not this day.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

On the 74 Today

The Latest

Load More Latest
Education news and commentary, delivered right to your inbox.

Sign up for The 74 newsletter.

Weaving a Stronger Society — Starting in Our Schools

View All


View All


View All

Special Series

More Series

More Stories

Invest in independent journalism

Donate now to The 74

Load More
Sign Up for The 74's Newsletter

Get the best of The 74’s education news, analysis and commentary in your inbox each weekday morning.