Throughout 2022, the labor movement made headlines in various industries and states across the country. Reports of strikes and the brewing of union organization at well-known companies like Amazon and Starbucks prompted some to wax sentimental for the days of powerful organized labor. A resurgence in organized labor seemed underway, but when the official numbers were released, union membership was reported to have fallen to its lowest-ever point in 2022, at just 10.1%.
Even though the number of union members actually increased slightly to 14.3 million, the increase in overall workers far outpaced the increase in unionized workers. It wasn’t quite the union comeback some hoped for.
But while union membership rates decreased, the organized labor movement got bolder. The number of strikes increased, with the official numbers reporting 23 work stoppages throughout 2022, the most since 2019. The Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks work stoppages that include more than a thousand workers.
More inclusive numbers show an even more dramatic increase in worker stoppages. Cornell University tracks labor actions across the nation, including work stoppages (strikes) and labor protests. Last year, 404 strikes were reported, compared to 270 in 2021. During last year’s bout of rising inflation amid a strong job market, the labor movement was restless.
What Empowered Labor Action in 2022?
The tight market shifted the balance of labor market power towards workers in 2022, while price pressures prompted many to demand better wages and salaries. Simultaneously, the tight labor market also meant worker shortages, which caused discontent for existing workers. Labor shortages left workers frayed, overworked, and – in some cases – angry. In short, 2022 offered workers much to be unhappy about and the power to speak up about it.
Some of the most discontented industries had just been praised as heroes during the worst of the pandemic. Frontline workers grabbed the spotlight and elicited widespread gratitude in early 2020. By 2022, though, this “heroism” had mostly slipped away, but left nurses worse off. Nurses and other healthcare professionals were still doing the same crucial work but now reported feeling overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 36,000 workers in the healthcare and social assistance sector were involved in major work stoppages in 2022.
Healthcare is one of the few sectors in which union membership has increased since 2000 but they were not the only aggressive group in 2022. Looking beyond the official numbers, Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker reports that workers in the Accommodation and Food Services sector were involved in 144 strikes across the U.S. in 2022, but 95% of these were attended by less than 100 workers. A perfect example of a smaller-but-bolder labor movement.
Can the Strength Last?
In the midst of this increased action in 2022, Americans came down strongly on the side of the workers. A Gallup poll from August 2022 showed that 71% of respondents approved of labor unions, the highest approval rate since 1965. The boldness of these workers (along with the post-COVID shift in labor sentiment) may have won some support.
The balance of labor market power may shift in 2023 if the market does indeed cool. If that is the case, workers may feel less energized in 2023. However, while the labor market has remained strong in the first two months of the year, 42 strikes have already occurred according to Cornell. By this time last year, that number was at 49. This year could be another strong one for labor unions.