Number of unionized Tennessee workers continues to drop in 2020

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Signs for and against unionization are in a roundabout along Volkswagen Drive in front of the Volkswagen plant in 2019 when the VW workers voted 833 to 776 against union representation by the United Auto Workers in the biggest organizing effort by organized labor in Chattanooga in the past decade. The share of Tennessee workers represented by unions continued to decline last year.

Despite a nationwide gain for labor unions in 2020, the number of unionized workers in Tennessee fell another 13.3% last year to 117,000 members, according to government figures released Friday.

"COVID-19 has obviously hurt many industries and cost some union jobs and it has also made organizing efforts much more difficult," said Billy Dycus, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO. "But I think we'll see a bounce back in the auto industry and other business sectors and we'll see an upswing by this spring or summer."

Dycus said state and business leaders in Tennessee "have done all that they can to make sure we are recognized as a right-to-work state" and a state with fewer unions.

" I think that has emboldened a lot of companies to make sure that if there is any union organizing attempts that they hire the best law firms and put out an all-out effort to defeat any union," Dycus said.

Over the past two decades, the number of union members in Tennessee has declined by nearly 47%, dropping by 103,000 from the year 2000 to 2020 even as overall employment in the state has grown by nearly 20%.

The decline in labor union representation in Tennessee mirrors a nationwide drop for organized labor, which shed 3.1 million members over the past four decades to cut its share of the workforce from more than 20% since 1983.

Union representation in Tennessee is only about half the U.S. average and ranked the third lowest among the 50 states last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

Least unionized states

1. South Carolina, unions represent 3.8% of workers2. North Carolina, unions represent 3.9% of workers3. Tennessee, unions represent 5.1% of workers4. Utah, unions represent 5.4% of workers4. Virginia, unions represent 5.4% of workersSource: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers

Nationwide, the share of workers who are union members rose 0.5 percentage points last year to 10.8%, primarily because non-union jobs were lost at a faster pace than were union jobs.

"While last year was filled with unemployment and economic pain because of a deadly pandemic and the incompetent federal response to it, union density rose," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement Friday. "We believe this increase is part of a national groundswell. The popularity of unions is at 65%, one of the highest marks in a half-century, and research shows that more than 60 million workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance."

But business leaders say many of the worker protections unions have historically provided are now guaranteed in state and federal regulations and workplace rules so there is less demand among workers to join a union. Tennessee is one of 27 states that are right-to-work states where workers are free to choose whether to join a labor union, even if a majority of workers at their worksite opt to unionize.

Jim Brown, president of the Tennessee chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) said the state's right-to-work laws are a key foundation for the business strength in Tennessee and help ensure that workers are free to choose whether they want to belong to a labor union or not.

Tennessee adopted its right-to-work law in 1947 and the Tennessee General Assembly last year took the first step toward amending the state's constitution to put the right-to-work requirement in Tennessee's constitution, if the measure is approved this year by two thirds of both houses of the Legislature and then is ultimately approved by Tennessee voters.

"The business community views the right-to-work law in Tennessee as one of those bedrock laws that make us a very good state for business and I think right-to-work laws are good to help protect workers as well," Brown said.

But union supporters note that right-to-work states have lower rates of unionization and pay, on average, than do states with union shop rules where organized labor is traditionally stronger and bargains for higher wages and benefits.

"Where workers have been able to act collectively and bargain through their union, they have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, and paid sick time, during the pandemic," said Heidi Shierholz, the executive director of policy at the pro-union Economic Policy Institute.

The BLS reported last year that unionized workers, on average, were paid $1,144 a week, or 19% more than the $958 weekly average for non-union workers. Dycus said right-to-work states, on average, also have higher rates of poverty and lower educational achievement than do states with greater union presence.

But convincing Tennessee workers to join a union and pay union dues remains a challenge.

For the past decade, for instance, the United Auto Workers has been trying to organize the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga. But VW workers voted in 2014 and again in 2019 against joining the UAW, even when the auto maker did not actively oppose the union.

In a statement Friday, UAW Region 8 Director Mitchell Smith said with the pandemic "this has been a challenging year for all employment sectors" but the UAW expects to grow at the GM plant in Spring Hill, which is undergoing a $2 billion expansion, and the union continues to work on other organizing efforts at automotive plants and suppliers in the state.

"General Motors' Spring Hill plant continues to thrive with exciting new products, as do many suppliers, in part because of the worker protections and voice of UAW members in working through the many pandemic challenges with their employers," Smith said. "In fact, while VW Groups 2020 adjusted operating profit was cut in half, GM's adjusted operating profit was up 14.9% over pre-COVID 2019 levels. Now more than ever in this age of COVID-19, workers in Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant see the value of having a voice in their workplace and continue a strong interest in collective bargaining."

In Georgia, union membership grew last year from 180,000 in 2019 to 194,000 in 2020 with 6.5% of all Georgia workers now represented by labor unions. But in neighboring Alabama, union membership declined from 173,000 members in 2019 to 151,000 last year with 8.7% of all workers in Alabama now represented by labor unions.

Nationwide, the union membership rate of public-sector workers (34.8 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than the rate of private-sector workers (6.3 percent). The BLS reported that the highest unionization rates were among workers in protective service occupations (36.6 percent) and in education, training, and library occupations (35.9 percent).

Hawaii and New York continued to have the highest union membership rates (23.7 percent and 22.0 percent, respectively).

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340