Union membership in construction rose by 31,000—3.1%—to 1.02 million in 2021 from its 2020 annual average, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported. However, digging deeper into the numbers shows membership has nearly regained its pre-pandemic level, even as overall construction employment still trails its 2019 level.

According to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America, the 2020 employment numbers "reflected a steep decline in employment that affected union and non-unionized firms differently," AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson said in a recent Data Digest message. Project postponements or cancellations related to the pandemic were the cause of much of the 2020 loss. Total construction industry employment averaged 8.16 million in 2021, a rise of 328,000 and 4.2% from 2020 but still 195,000, or 2.3%, below the 2019 average of 8.35 million.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of construction employees represented by unions totaled 1.11 million (13.6% of all construction industry employees) in 2021; 1.05 million (13.4%) in 2020; and 1.13 million (13.6%) in 2019. Only 21,000 fewer union jobs separate 2019 and 2021 construction employment.


Far Above Our Goal

"We see it on the ground, we've had two of the best years we've ever had, in terms of recruitment," says Jason George, business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 49 based in Minneapolis, which represents equipment operators, mechanics, surveyors and engineers in Minnesota,  and North and South Dakota. "We are up to 14,900 members, which is far above our goal of reaching 14,000 in 2019."

George says that active jobsites during the last two years and construction declared essential infrastructure by governors in the states IUOE operates in helped keep their business stable and even drew in some new recruits from other industries. He also stresses that all decisions about negotiations regarding staying open were made with safety as the number one priority, even as there was enthusiasm to keep sites open.

"In early 2020, we asked, 'do you want us to push for you to be on these lists of occupations that are going to stop?"  George says. The answer was that 99.9% wanted to go to work, he adds.

Some jobs were delayed and postponed due to uncertainty early on, but most of them returned by the end of 2021, George says. That brought more interest in training programs and apprenticeships and, eventually, higher membership. AGC has said that highlighting the essential nature of construction work has become a focus of its recruitment efforts.

"We have launched a targeted digital advertising campaign called Construction is Essential, created a template workforce recruitment website, hosted the first-ever national construction industry workforce development summit and launched our Culture of Care employee retention program," says Brian Turmail, AGC's vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives.

Beyond construction, the rate of overall union membership in the U.S., the percentage of wage and salary workers who were part of a union, dropped 10.3% (241,000) to 14 million in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.