Membership has been declining for decades

The birthplace of many national labor movements, California hit its unionization peak in the 1950s, with more than 40% of the workforce unionized. The state has been a trailblazer, carving new paths for collective bargaining. Notably, labor organizing led by legendary activist Cesar Chavez brought wins such as the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, establishing the right of farmworkers to form and join unions, a first in the nation.

Since then, California has consistently organized more workers than the nation, particularly in education and health care. In part, that’s because California hasn’t followed a wave of conservative states in passing so-called right-to-work laws, meaning employees cannot be required to join a union in a unionized workplace. But California’s membership rates trail states like Hawaii, where 23.7% of workers are unionized, and New York, at 22%.

Like union membership across the country, the reach of California’s unions has been declining, reaching a historical low of 14.7% in 2018. The reasons are many and controversial. 

Experts agree that there’s been slower growth in industries with traditionally strong unions, such as manufacturing. Labor organizers often point to fierce corporate opposition against workers who try to organize, and a lack of federal penalties for intimidation or retaliation. Corporations point to declining relevance for workers who are suspicious of alleged corruption or greed within unions. Plus, unions increasingly prioritize spending on lobbying over recruitment, said William Gould IV, a Stanford Law professor who studies labor and discrimination law. “Unions today are spending roughly one-third to one-fifth of what they expended during the ‘30s, the ‘40s or the ‘50s when it comes to union organizing.” 

Unions tout an uptick in membership over the last few years — in 2020, 16.2% of California’s workers were in a union — but that’s far from a recovery.

Jackie Botts