For all the successful strikes and unionization drives over the past few years, for all the attention that labor has received, America’s union movement has fallen short in one key area—it has failed to add a significant number of members, a long-awaited development that would show that labor’s decades-long decline has finally ended.

There’s no denying that unions have made some remarkable strides recently, as evidenced by the impressive contract gains the United Auto Workers (UAW) won last fall from Detroit’s automakers and the string of unionization victories at universities, museums, news organizations, Starbucks stores, and more. Despite that good news, an important gauge of labor’s health—the percentage of workers belonging to unions—declined once again last year, so that only 10 percent of the nation’s workers belong to unions and a mere 6 percent in the private sector, down from 25 percent in the 1970s. Adding to labor’s frustration, even though workers at Amazon, Apple, REI, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s all first unionized around two years ago, in not one of those companies have workers reached a first contract that improves their wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Going into 2024, many workplace experts said America’s labor movement needed two things especially to give it the upward momentum it needs. The first would be for the UAW to show that it could finally succeed in unionizing auto plants in the anti-union South after its previous attempts had failed. The second thing would be for the union that represents workers at 400 Starbucks stores, Starbucks Workers United, to somehow overcome Starbucks’ months and months of negotiating delays and finally reach a landmark first contract.

On that first matter, labor scored a brilliant success when the UAW overwhelmingly won a unionization vote, 73 percent to 27 percent, at Volkswagen’s 4,300-employee plant in Chattanooga. It was a historic victory, breaking through the South’s forbidding anti-union citadel. As for the second test, there are strong hints of another breakthrough. Starbucks, shaken by a wave of strikes, a sinking stock price, and growing calls for a national boycott, announced in February that the coffee chain, after fiercely fighting organizing efforts for two years, wanted to make peace with its union and make real progress toward reaching a first union contract. In further promising news, Starbucks and its union held their first negotiating session in nearly a year on April 24, with a union spokesperson voicing optimism that Starbucks would finally bargain in good faith.

These developments are important, substantively and symbolically, fueling hopes that they will inspire lots more union activism and activity. Having achieved its landmark victory at Volkswagen, the UAW voices optimism that it will win a unionization vote this month at Mercedes’s 5,200-employee auto plant in Vance, Alabama. (The workers’ votes there will be counted on May 17.) The UAW further hopes that with the VW and Mercedes dominoes falling, workers at five or ten other auto plants will also soon vote to unionize, meaning that up to 50,000 more auto workers may soon join the UAW’s ranks. Adding 50,000 more members would be a serious advance for the UAW, which represents 145,000 workers at Detroit’s Big Three automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis.

The forward movement at Starbucks has stirred hopes that if the union reaches a good first contract for the 10,000 baristas at the nation’s 400 unionized Starbucks—and if Starbucks stops fighting against organizing efforts—then baristas at several thousand of the company’s 9,000-plus company-run stores would also unionize. If Starbucks Workers United succeeds in unionizing, say, 3,000 Starbucks, that would mean a very impressive 75,000 additional union members. Labor’s hope is that this hoped-for wave of unionization at southern auto plants and Starbucks would generate huge publicity and excitement and inspire tens of thousands of workers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, in other industries and at other employers to also unionize. That could mean a substantial increase in union membership and show, finally, that labor has ended its long decline.

That’s the optimistic version. Right now, there is more reason to hope for a reversal of American labor’s decline than there has been in at least half a century—public approval of unions is its highest since the 1960s, Joe Biden is one of the most pro-union presidents ever, having even walked on a UAW picket line, and the UAW and several other unions have inspiring new leaders. But union leaders’ hopes and predictions of reversing labor’s decline have repeatedly proved illusory (some would even say delusional).

Labor’s big hopes have repeatedly been dashed for two reasons. First, corporations in the United States fight harder to quash unionization—as we’ve seen at Starbucks, Amazon, and Walmart—than corporations in any other industrial country. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed an astounding number of complaints—128 and counting—against Starbucks that allege more than 1,000 illegalities, from firing dozens of pro-union workers to closing stories in retaliation for unionizing. The NLRB has also issued more than twenty complaints against Amazon, accusing it of such illegalities as threatening to cut wages if workers unionize and preventing off-duty workers from talking with other workers about unionizing. (Both Starbucks and Amazon deny breaking the law.) Such corporate actions make unionizing far harder and make many workers too frightened to attempt to unionize.

Second, the toothlessness of America’s labor laws makes unionizing far more of an uphill battle than it needs to be. Federal law makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for supporting a union, for example, yet many corporations believe they have a bright green light to violate the law because they can’t be fined even one cent for illegally firing the ten workers leading a union drive. Another huge weakness in America’s labor laws is that they are largely ineffective in getting companies to bargain in good faith after workers unionize. Companies can drag out negotiations for years, as Starbucks and Trader Joe’s have done, and the NLRB can only issue useless warnings about failing to bargain in good faith. The NLRB can’t require companies to ever reach a first contract to improve wages and working conditions—the main reason that workers want a union in the first place. When workers see how maddeningly difficult it is to ever reach a first contract (largely due to corporate foot-dragging), that turns off many workers to the idea of unionizing.

This helps explain a disturbing disconnect. While two-thirds of Americans approve of labor unions, including nearly 90 percent of Americans under age 30, and while nearly half of nonunion workers say they’d vote to join a union if they could, only one in ten American workers are in unions. The main reason for this disconnect is corporate America’s fierce and systematic suppression of unions. To beat back organizing efforts, companies intimidate and interrogate workers (illegal), fire pro-union workers (illegal), threaten to cut wages and close operations if workers unionize (illegal), and propagandize workers 24/7 (legal).

Workers at Starbucks and VW have managed to unionize despite these obstacles, but for many other workers, their right to unionize has often proved illusory because of corporations’ expensive, all-out anti-union campaigns. Many lawmakers and labor leaders recognize that to give workers a fair shot at unionizing, the nation’s laws need to be changed—for instance, by creating substantial fines to punish companies when they illegally fire pro-union workers.

Corporate America has used its outsize might to repeatedly kill legislative efforts to make it easier to unionize—as corporations did to block passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act under President Biden.

While CEOs rail against unions because they reduce corporate profits by winning better pay for the workers who produce those profits, let’s not forget that unions do many good things for society. Unions strengthen the middle class. They reduce income inequality. They bring workers of different races, religions, and nationalities together. They build community and help reduce workers’ anger and alienation. They strengthen and protect our democracy.

Just as many of America’s laws prevent our nation from being a true democracy, many of our laws prevent workers from having a true, democratic choice about whether they want a union. Far too often, corporations run massive anti-union campaigns that misinform, intimidate, and frighten workers, and as a result, many companies’ badly cowed workforces end up voting against having a union. As Shawn Fain, the UAW’s president told me, it should be up to the workers, not up to corporations whether they have a union. It should be up to the workers and not up to anti-union billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

In a country that sees itself as a bastion of freedom, America’s workers should have a free choice about whether they want to unionize to improve their jobs and their lives.