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Covering the renewed interest in unions

Just last week, in a historic move, Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse in New York voted to unionize – a move the online shopping giant has been aggressively fighting. Amazon is not the only large corporation trying to fend off collective bargaining from their workforce.

Overall, membership in unions has declined since its peak in the 1950’s, but the pandemic has helped give workers the upper hand in negotiating with employers, allowing union votes, such as this one, to move forward. Here is what you need to know when covering the resurgence of unions.

Understanding the history and membership of unions

The earliest recorded labor strike, also occurred in New York, in 1768, when a group of tailors protested a wage reduction. A couple decades later, in 1794, shoemakers in Philadelphia formed the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers to mark the first labor union in the United States. Since then, the look and popularity of labor unions has fluctuated over time, but the core tenants remain the same: labor unions exist to protect the common interest of workers. This includes fighting for better wages, safer working conditions, ensuring aid and health benefits, while preventing abusive labor practices.

Last year the BLS reported that union membership rate was 10.3% of the workforce, with the majority of union workers belonging to the public-sector, heavily in education, training, and library occupations. For comparison, in 1983 the membership rate was 20.1%. The BLS report also breaks down membership rates by demographics, state, and full or part time employment. View more informative union data tools from the BLS here.

Labor organizations to know

If you are interested in reporting on unions there are a couple of key players you should know. The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations), founded in 1955, is the largest federation of unions in the US made up of 57 unions and representing 12.5 million workers. Another organization, Change to Win was founded in 2005 as an alternative to AFL-CIO and represents an additional 4.5 million workers from four national unions.

Some of the largest and oldest unions are:

  • SEIU: Service Employees International Union organizes service workers such as janitors and security employees, hospital and home healthcare workers and others in both the public and private sectors and has almost 2 million workers.
  • IBT: Also known as ‘Teamsters,’ the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represent both public- and private-sector workers in government, schools, prisons and hospitals and other companies across the US.
  • UFCW: United Food and Commercial Workers organizes grocery and retail stores as well as meat packing employees and represents around 1.3 million workers.
  • UAW: United Auto Workers, founded in 1935, has 390,000 active members.
  • AFSCME: American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, known as “Af-smee” was founded in 1932, represents 1.3 million workers.
  • AFGE: American Federation of Government Employees, also founded in 1932 and represents 670,000 workers.
  • AFT: American Federation of Teachers is the second largest teacher’s union in the US founded in 1916.
  • NEA: National Education Association is the largest union and one of the oldest unions representing more than 3 million people and founded in 1857.

Many of these organizations likely have a local chapter if you are in a larger city, so be sure to find out which ones are around you and get to know the people who run them.

Be familiar with the research

Depending on who you talk to, you will get different answers about whether unions are good for American workers or not. Generally those answers coincide to who benefits from unions and who doesn’t.

Pew Research recently completed a study that showed that the majority of Americans view the decline of unions as a bad thing for working people and for the country as a whole. The Economic Policy Institute released a report in 2017 on how today’s unions help working people. And there are dozens of recent research articles on unions, such as this one that connects research on labor unions and American poverty

All of these sources are worth perusing and understanding when you’re covering the labor beat. When a representative (either from a company or a union) states a ‘statistic’ in an interview, you can already know if that statistic is true, taken out of context, or completely fabricated with no evidence to back it up. Knowing these facts ahead of time can allow you to ask more poignant questions in the moment without waiting to follow up after fact-checking their statements.


  • Julianne Culey

    Julianne is the Assistant Director of the Reynolds Center with expertise in marketing and communications and holds a master's in Sociology from Arizona State University.

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