“Labor Unions are having a moment” announced a recent Time magazine story, pointing out Gallup’s finding that “Sixty-eight percent of Americans approve of labor unions.” Many readers might have thought that they had accidentally stumbled on a mid-20th century archive. After all, organized labor in the U.S. has been in decline for a long time. Nationally, union membership dropped from about one-third of workers in the early 1950s to a little over 10% today.

Actually, though, unions are growing in size, in power and in importance. We are seeing this play out around the country in campaigns for workers’ organizing rights at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, John Deere, high-tech firms, media organizations, universities and more. And we think this union resurgence is a positive development for American workers.  

It is no secret that the working conditions of working-class people deteriorated as unions shrank over the late 20th century. Since the 1970s, real wages have stagnated or declined (despite increases in worker productivity), right-to-work states multiplied, and higher thresholds for overtime emerged, as did the normalization of the “working poor.” The gutting of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations has made some jobs increasingly dangerous. Many jobs provide no health care benefits, and this along with the cost of child care and arbitrary scheduling has made those lower-paid jobs almost impossible for workers with families.

Then came the pandemic. The subsequent high unemployment rates among women meant the economic downturn was dubbed a “shecession.” Many workers learned that their labor is “essential.” For some, that label effectively reinforced their undervaluation and marginal status on the “front line,” often at greater risk of COVID-19 infection than those working from home.

At the same time, the wealth of a few Americans has skyrocketed, dramatically escalating overall economic inequality. The rich have become richer, and the working class have become poorer, even in a global pandemic.

Throughout, corporations have mastered busting worker organizations and imposed top-down management tactics, including “rank and yank” performance reviews that divide workers and are used to fire activists. The growing corporate rhetoric about employees as “families” and “partners” who do not need unions is another assault on workers’ rights to bargain for fair pay, decent working conditions and a voice in workplace governance.


Many working people have continued to endure these conditions, less for the dignity of work than for the necessity of income. Others are rethinking their emotional relationship to work; if their jobs provide so little, why not opt out of exploitive working conditions? The so-called “Great Resignation” included an estimated 25 million people who voluntarily quit in the last half of 2021. Women in particular left the labor force in droves during the pandemic.

More important in the long run, we think, is that many workers, across various economic sectors, have decided to exercise voice, act and organize to try to change the structure and governance of work. Much of this activity, including strikes, is the product of informal worker alliances and spontaneous protest to advance workers’ rights. But much worker activism has supported and in turn been supported by labor unions.

Indeed, union membership seems increasingly attractive. Many studies show that median weekly wages for full-time workers are substantially higher — on average $194 weekly, or 20% — for union members than for nonunion workers. As the Washington State Labor Council reminds us, this is the “difference a union can make.”

Even before the pandemic, 48% of nonunion workers indicated they would join a union if they could. And the percentage of workers who are union members increased by 0.5% in 2020 compared to the previous year, despite historic losses of jobs during the pandemic.

Equally important is that union growth has been led by women and people of color, including many recent immigrants. Over 16 million workers now are represented by a union, and only a third are white men; nearly half are women, over a third are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). And this shift is directly related to the broader egalitarian, inclusionary social justice commitments of the most vital unions today.

Washington state has been at the forefront of this resurgent social justice unionization.   Progressive blue-collar unions like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have long anchored the struggles for workers’ rights in our state. But recently, service workers, nurses, food workers, home care workers, teachers and the like (jobs frequently held by women and BIPOC workers have cultivated collective power through progressive unions like Service Employees International Union (SEIU), UNITE HERE, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) and Washington Education Association (WEA). Our state now has the third-highest union density in the U.S., behind only Hawaii and New York; 19% of workers are in a union.

These unions pressed for gender- and race-based wage equity in the past and for the $15 minimum wage just a few years ago. It is true that, while progressive unions have helped shape Washington state politics, that regional impact has not been matched by comparable power in national politics. But then, again, President Joe Biden has proved himself a supporter in words and some policy initiatives such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. It remains to be seen whether support produces real change.

Unions face formidable legal constraints and business-funded political opponents, to be sure. But organized labor is “having a moment.” This should be understood as great news for all working people.