New Economic Realities   //   January 24, 2023

What 2022’s union trends say about organizing in retail

Among the retail industry’s roughly 15 million workers, around 749,000 – or about 5% – were represented by a union in 2022.

That’s up slightly from the 740,000 workers represents by a union the year prior, yet flat from a percentage standpoint, according to new Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In food service, about 1.7% of workers were represented by a union, around 148,000 compared to 129,000 the year before.

The figures indicate that despite these small gains, the recent movement among retail and service workers sparked by Starbucks in late 2021 still has a long ways to go.

While a number of petitions for filing unions at Amazon warehouses, for example, just one — in Staten Island — has officially been formed. Starbucks Workers United, the effort that launched in Buffalo, New York, and spread nationwide, counts 370 stores that have filed for union elections — about 12% of the overall number of locations.

John Ahlquist, a professor at UC San Diego, said while there has been significant attention paid to organizing movements at the likes of Starbucks and Amazon, these movements have yet to scale large enough to move the needle on overall unionization.

“The very high profile events that we’ve heard about are still playing themselves out, and wouldn’t really have been showing up in these data very much at all yet anyway,” he said.

What’s fueling the numbers

Overall, around 273,000 more U.S. residents belonged to a union in 2022 than the year before, for a total of about 14.3 million people. That’s about 10.1% of all workers. But that’s a record low, down from 10.3% the year before.

BLS says this rate of membership was disproportionately impacted by the 5.3 million people who became wage and salary workers in 2021, representing an influx of people getting back into the workforce amid the pandemic-related economic recovery.

Nathan Wilmers, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management whose work focuses on earnings inequality and labor organizing, said the union membership rate has steadily declined since the 1980s. As many as 20.1% of workers were represented by a union 1983, per the oldest comparable BLS data.

“The membership decline really goes back several decades,” Wilmers said.

Still, Wilmers said the raw number increase of union members and the increased number of filings for union elections at the National Labor Relations Board indicate that there has been an increase in union activity since the lockdown-era of the pandemic.

Part of the reason that boost has yet to show up in the BLS numbers may be because organized workers haven’t yet secured a collective bargaining agreement with their employers, Wilmers said. Those delays can go on for one to three years, Wilmers said.

What’s next

Moving forward, though, having more people involved in unions could help galvanize future organizing efforts.

“The flip side of the small decline and union density is that the absolute numbers of union members did increase with the increase in overall employment, which means that it is the case that more people paying union dues, and therefore more union capacity for future action than there was, say last year,” Wilmers said.

The data also show that members of unions, in some cases, earn more than their non-union peers. Overall median weekly earnings for union members in 2022 were $1,216 compared to $1,029 for non-union workers, or 18% more.

In food service, unionized workers earned a weekly median of $791, compared to $665 for non-union counterparts, or 19% more. For those working in retail trade, though, the 2022 median weekly wages were lower: unionized workers earned $780 compared to $815 for non-union workers.

Ahlquist from UC San Diego said Starbucks workers in particular have been adept at initiating strikes and coordinating their efforts across the country, which bodes well for their cause.

But it could be increasingly harder for retail and service workers to organize as companies continue to develop a “playbook” to tamp down such efforts — a federal court case is currently underway in Pennsylvania over allegations from the NLRB that Starbucks interfered with workers’ organizing efforts.

“That includes firing organizers and includes threatening workers if they vote. It includes closed-door meetings with your workers. All these types of things, some of which are at the border of legal and some of which are illegal, but for which there’s really no meaningful penalty,” Ahlquist said.