Lessons Learned from the Pandemic: The Future of the American Worker Is with Unions

New Roosevelt Institute brief offers ​​evidence of the job security and economic stability unions provide during periods of crisis

September 21, 2022
Ariela Weinberger
(212) 444-9130

NEW YORK, NY —The tentative agreement between rail carriers and railroad unions is the latest example in a string of labor actions that show how collective bargaining bolsters working Americans and our economy. In addition to improving working conditions and wages, unions stabilize our economy by fighting back against the cost-cutting that weakens national economic infrastructure in the name of higher profits.

In a new brief, the Roosevelt Institute’s Alí R. Bustamante, deputy director of the Worker Power and Economic Security program at the Roosevelt Institute, explores data that illustrate the critical and changing role unions have played during and after the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency on March 13, 2020, and one month later, total employment in the United States declined by over 15 percent. Union-covered workers were able to recover employment losses in four months, while total employment levels would not return to pre-pandemic levels for two years. Workers’ experience with the pandemic and the subsequent economic recovery suggests we need more policies supporting both labor organizing and full employment. 

A New Era for Worker Power: Labor Wins during the Pandemic, and the Policies We Need to Sustain the Momentum,” a just-released Roosevelt Institute brief, presents new data from the pandemic to show how formal labor-management bargaining protects workers against widespread employment losses during an economic crisis. Bargaining provides workers with job protections and employers with credible, independent worker insights that help them navigate through turbulent times with more stable employment. The brief finds that: 

  • American workers covered by unions were less than half as likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic as compared to all workers. Unions were able to limit job losses by collectively bargaining the terms of furloughs and layoffs with employers; 
  • Labor-management bargaining helped sustain employment levels throughout the pandemic, with union employment averaging 98.4 percent of the pre-pandemic level between May 2020 and July 2022; and
  • The hot labor market driven by policies promoting full employment led to real wage growth for workers among the bottom half of the income distribution, but union workers fought for higher wages through labor strikes. 

The brief also finds that while unions successfully kept many Americans employed, union coverage also enabled thousands of workers to participate in strikes in response to the gradual decline in real wages during the economic recovery. 

Insight from the Author:

“Both labor unions and a full employment economy are essential to increase worker power and promote greater job security. As we anticipate a world with more frequent economic crises, we need policies that support the rebuilding of a strong labor movement and ensure labor unions are ready to bargain in a high-growth economy,” said Bustamante. “Together, labor and economic policies that support workers can turn employment in America into an expression of the freedom to participate in the economy on fair and equal terms.”