In June, the Apple Store in Towson Town Center made national headlines when it became the first Apple Store in the nation to vote to unionize. The vote continues a recent trend of pro-labor activity, catalyzed by a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY, that voted to unionize in December 2021.

But what exactly are unions? And why are we seeing an increase in union activity now?

Unions allow employees to advocate for goals such as improved workplace safety, better pay and benefits, and increased opportunities. Union activity is protected at the federal level by the National Labor Relations Act, which was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Act grants most private-sector employees the right to form and join unions and to engage in collective bargaining, including the right to strike, without the fear of retaliation. Collective bargaining allows workers as a singular group to negotiate with their employers. It gives workers more leverage since they are working in concert with one another instead of as individuals. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency that is tasked with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act.

In the case of the union vote at the Apple Store in Towson, workers hope to gain higher wages, improved schedules, and opportunities for advancement within the company. Apple has responded to union activity by highlighting that its workers are more highly compensated (wages, benefits, and stocks) than most retail workers, and that unionizing could harm the company.

Despite the recent focus on high-profile unionization efforts, union membership has actually been declining for decades. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.3 percent of workers, or 14.0 million people, were members of unions in 2021. For comparison, in 1983 (the first year available in this particular dataset), 17.7 million workers were in unions, or 20.1 percent of the workforce.

Source: U.S. BLS

However, these total figures do not tell the whole story. In 2021, 33.9 percent of public-sector employees (for example, teachers and police officers) were union members, while only 6.1 percent of private-sector workers are union members. Union membership in the public sector has only fallen 2.8 percentage points from 1983 to 2022 (a 7.6 percent drop), while union membership in the private sector has fallen 10.7 percentage points (a 63.7 percent drop).

Source: U.S. BLS

Although union membership has been steadily declining over the years, the number of petitions for union elections increased 57 percent in the first half of FY 2022 compared to the first half of FY 2021. This means that more employees are actively working towards having union representation for themselves. Experts point to a perfect storm of factors, including COVID safety concerns, easy communication via social media, disconnects between corporate profits and what front-line workers experience, and pro-labor political leaders, in explaining the current situation. However, only time will tell if a new wave of unionization is upon us, or if this is just a short-term blip in a continuing trend of decreased union membership.