There’s been a significant renewal of labor organizing activity in Georgia and nationally since COVID-19, but new 2022 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) don’t yet reflect that uptick.

The percentage of Georgians who belong to unions actually declined slightly last year, dropping from 4.8% to 4.4%, according to the BLS’s annual labor report. There were 4.52 million full and part-time employees in Georgia last year, but only 200,000 of them were union members. That’s down from 211,000 union members in 2021. 

Georgia’s union membership rate is well below the national union membership rate of 10.1% that BLS reported, down from 10.3% in 2021, which it says is the lowest national union membership rate on record. 

The disconnect reflects a job market that’s bouncing back from COVID-19 and the substantial time lag from when workers start trying to organize a union to actually succeeding. Even though 273,000 new workers joined unions last year nationally, the overall union membership rate decreased because almost 5.3 million new workers got either full or part-time jobs–and most of them were non-union. 

“2022 was a huge year in union organizing, even though the numbers are more or less flat [in the BLS report],” Christian Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s national deputy organizing director told Atlanta Civic Circle.

Unionizing a workplace is difficult and time-consuming because employers often push back, he said, so it takes time for increases in unionization activity to show up in the numbers. 

Georgia workers have been making new efforts at unionizing in workplaces of every size. Here in Atlanta, Starbucks employees at the Howell Mill and Ansley Mall stores that unionized last summer have been struggling since then to get Starbucks to participate in contract negotiation talks. Local Amazon employees have staged one-day walkouts with an eye to possibly unionizing, as they wrangle with management over their demands for better workplace safety and wage increases. Flight attendants at Delta Air Lines, which is headquartered in Atlanta, continue to push toward a national union vote, while Creature Comforts employees in Athens just announced in January they’d formed a new craft beer union

Sweeney said the annual BLS union membership statistics don’t capture these early stages of union organizing. 

However, an October report from the NLRB, which certifies union elections and rules on unfair labor law violations, better captures this new organizing momentum. 

Union election petitions jumped by an eye-popping 53% for the 2022 federal fiscal year that ended in October, the report says. Last year, 2,510 union representation petitions were filed nationally–which is the highest number since 2016.

But filing a union petition is just the start for workers trying to organize. They still must hold an election, win it, and get the results certified by the NLRB. At that point, they have a year to negotiate a contract with their employer–but first must get the employer to the bargaining table, which has been an obstacle for the Starbucks shops, among others.  It’s a long process, and the BLS statistics capture union membership. 

The  Google trend statistics below offer an even more real-time snapshot of workers’ interest in unionizing than the 53% spike in union election petitions submitted to the NLRB.

Google search results for “How do I form a union?” spiked in 2022.

In Georgia, the AFL-CIO is trying to turn that interest into concrete union membership, along with newer unions like Starbucks Workers’ United and the Union of Southern Service Workers, which just formed in November. The Atlanta chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has gotten involved as well, helping Starbucks workers, among others, with their organizing activities.

Sweeney expects to see union membership numbers increase both nationally and in the South as the organizing activity currently underway gains traction.

“We’re expecting 2023 to be as big or bigger than 2022 from an organizing perspective,” he said. “Workers want unions and the pandemic showed that employers don’t put workers first. People are coming together to help each other.” 

Data reporting was provided by Maggie Lee.

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