Union membership last year grew by nearly 8.8% in Georgia, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual report on labor union membership. "We moved out of the worst of the COVID year and things started to rebound so we saw a lot more unionized workers back on the job," said Billy Dycus, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO. "There is so much construction work right now that our building trades are overwhelmed."
The union gains in Tennessee and Georgia came despite a nationwide drop in union membership last year of another 241,000 workers from union rolls.
That continued a four-decade-long drop that has cut the share of workers who are union members from more than 20% of all workers in 1983 to 10.3% of all workers last year.
Nationwide, union membership dropped to 14 million as the U.S. economy as a whole added another 4.2 million jobs in 2021.
States with the biggest union gains in 2021
Despite a nationwide drop of 241,000 in labor union membership in the U.S. last year, union membership increased in some states. Those making the biggest increases in labor union enrollment in 2021 were:
1. Tennessee, up 23.9% from 117,000 to 145,000.
2. Oregon, up 15.6% from 275,000 to 318,000.
3. Washington, up 12.9% from 557,000 to 629,000.
4. Massachusetts, up 12.6% from 357,000 to 402,000.
5. New Mexico, up 9.4% from 53,000 to 58,000.
6. Indiana, up 8.9% from 235,000 to 256,000.
7. Georgia, up 8.8% from 194,000 to 211,000.
8. Virginia, up 7.3% from 164,000 to 176,000.
9. New York, up 4.1$ from 1.67 million to 1.72 million.
10. California, up 1.1% from 2.44 million to 2.47 million.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Business groups claim the low rate of union membership in the South — the sixth-lowest rate among all states in Georgia and the eighth-lowest rate for union members of any state in Tennessee — helps business recruitment as evidenced by the higher rates of business investment in recent years in lower unionized states.
Bradley Jackson, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said workers in Tennessee are independent-minded and want to be able to choose whether to join a union, even when a majority of workers at their job site vote to unionize where they work.
Jackson said workers in many high-profile union elections, including UAW organizing efforts at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga and the Nissan plant in Smyrna, have been unsuccessful because many Tennessee workers are wary about paying for outside representation.
But worker support for labor unions appears to be growing. A Gallup poll of American workers last year showed union approval is at its highest level in over 50 years, with 68% of Americans supporting organized labor, including 77% of young people. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that some 60 million Americans would join a labor union if they could.
"I think more workers are discovering that there is power in the people and if the workers come together and vote they can have a union and get more of a say in what goes on at work," said Juli Prill, a business agent for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades who is president of the Chattanooga Area Labor Council.
"Also with the infrastructure package and more major companies moving to the South, there are probably going to be more project labor agreements [requiring union trade workers] and more workers familiar and supportive of labor unions coming to our area."
Prill, who went through the painters' union apprenticeship program to become a journeyman painter making more than $20 an hour, said labor unions "provide the hands-on training from people who are experienced and expert in your field and you get the chance to earn while you learn on the job."
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, union workers, on average, earned a median weekly pay last year of $1,169, or 17% more than the $975 median pay for the typical non-union worker.
Tight labor market
In Tennessee, state career centers on Tuesday were advertising 429,908 open jobs across the Volunteer State, or nearly four jobs for every person counted as unemployed in Tennessee.
Although many available jobs don't match up with worker skill levels or needs, most workers are able to find other employment, if they choose, and many employers are struggling to fill job vacancies, especially with more workers off the job because of COVID-19 illnesses and quarantines.
The AFL-CIO, the labor federation that represents most unions, said support among workers for unions is growing with the tight labor market coming out of the pandemic. But AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said labor laws and anti-union efforts by employers still make organizing difficult.
"In 2021, workers forcefully rejected low-wage, thankless jobs after a year of being called essential," Shuler said in a statement in response to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report. "In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clearer now than ever that our labor laws are designed to make joining a union as difficult as possible. If everyone who wanted to join a union was able to do so, membership would skyrocket."
Organized labor is pushing for passage of the PRO Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which Biden has also endorsed to make it easier for workers to unionize their workplace. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, would amend the National Labor Relations Act and other laws to help grant more protections to workers during unionizing efforts to collectively bargain in the workplace.
The proposal, which is still being debated in Congress, would prevent employers from holding mandatory meetings for the purpose of counteracting labor organizations and would strengthen the legal right of employees to join a labor union. The bill would weaken "right-to-work" laws, which exist in Tennessee and 26 other U.S. states to make it illegal for workplaces to require labor union membership for employees as a condition for employment when a majority of workers vote to be represented by a union.
Tennessee has had its right-to-work law for 75 years. Business groups and Tennessee's GOP-controlled legislature are trying to put the measure in the Tennessee Constitution to help preserve such labor laws for the future. Voters will decide on whether to ratify the proposed constitutional amendment in November.
"Right to work, in our minds, is part of a worker's First Amendment protection where you have a choice to decide whether or not you want to associate with a union or not," said Jim Brown, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Tennessee. "That's an important choice that needs to be protected, and it has been a part of our laws in Tennessee since 1947."
In addition to the constitutional amendment for a right-to-work law in Tennessee, Republican members in the Tennessee legislature are also pushing legislation to ban state financial incentives for businesses moving to Tennessee if they don't allow workers to vote in secret on union representation.
The proposal by Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, is scheduled to be considered Wednesday in the House Banking and Consumer Affairs subcommittee.
Smith's bill proposes that any business or entity seeking state funding of any sort must provide its employees the opportunity to vote for or against their representation in a labor union via a secret ballot.
"Workers, business owners and companies are coming to Tennessee for many reasons," she wrote in a Facebook post last month. "Among those is the fact that Tennessee empowers its workers with protections from a requirement to be a labor union member as a condition of employment."
Smith drafted the bill after an earlier attempt failed in the General Assembly last year to tie the state's financial incentives for Ford Motor Co. to build its $5.6 billion car and battery plant in West Tennessee to a requirement that Ford workers must have a secret ballot election to decide whether or not to join the UAW in Tennessee.
Ford has historically had a voluntary, universal agreement with the United Auto Workers to use the "card check" method to achieve union certification. In the "card check" process, 30% of employees must sign cards or forms voicing support for a union to request a secret-ballot election.
If the union gets signed cards by a majority (50% plus one) of employees, it can ask the NLRB and the employer for simple recognition by "card check" — a process that lets union bosses know who's on board for the effort.
If the employer agrees, the union would become the exclusive bargaining representative for employees without having a secret-ballot election.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.