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Unionization Rates Hold Steady, Despite Highly Publicized Drives

workers hold hands in line

U.S. union membership rates dipped slightly last year, despite some high-profile strikes and increased union drives.

Ten percent of American workers were union members in 2023, compared to 10.1 percent in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That number is down from 20.1 percent in 1983. There are 14.4 million union members in the U.S.

The union membership rate of public-sector workers (32.5 percent) continued to be more than five times that of private-sector workers (6 percent), the BLS reported.

“Union membership is at best stagnant. To reverse decades of decline, unions need to connect on a more personal basis to generate trust and understanding with prospective members,” said Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler in San Francisco. “This goes beyond social media outreaches. It means connecting with people on a personal basis.”

The highest union membership rates in 2023 were among teachers, librarians, postal workers, firefighters, police officers and other protective service workers. The lowest were in sales; food preparation and food service; and computer and mathematical fields. Men had a slightly higher unionization rate than women, and Black workers had higher unionization rates than white, Hispanic and Asian American workers, the BLS reported.

Among full-time workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $1,263 in 2023, while nonunion workers had median weekly earnings of $1,090. This pay discrepancy is partly due to union negotiations and the different distributions across industries and occupations for union and nonunion workers, the BLS said.

“You’re talking real money,” said Robert Bruno, a professor at and director of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Labor Education Program in Chicago. “To have that kind of a premium is really impressive.”

The BLS report did not compare the benefit plans available to union and nonunion employees.

Reasons for the Trend

There’s been an uptick in union drives recently. The National Labor Relations Board received 2,594 union petitions from Oct. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023, representing a 3 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

So why are union membership numbers not rising?

“Workers do not become union members and get covered in the unionization statistics until after the first contract has been negotiated. Because of employer stalling tactics, litigation, and refusal to engage in good-faith bargaining, the majority of newly organized units still don’t have contracts after two years, and so no new members,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y. “Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and REI are all examples of union election victories in the last two years that are not counted in these statistics because the companies have refused to negotiate first contracts.”

Another factor impacting unionization rates “is the rise of the gig economy. In that space, many companies utilize independent contractors versus employees for a host of services, and independent contractors are not able to form unions under the National Labor Relations Act,” said David Pryzbylski, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. “The rise of right-to-work laws—more than half of the states now have them—likely also is impacting these numbers and speeding the decline.”

Actors, screenwriters, health care workers, autoworkers and dockworkers participated in influential strikes or work stoppages in 2023, in most cases resulting in new union contracts with higher pay.

“There has been an increase in efforts to organize in a number of sectors—foreign auto companies, health care, retail, food and groceries—that if successful could see union density increase in the next few years,” said Paul Clark, a professor at Penn State University’s School of Labor and Employment Relations in State College, Pa. “The success that unions have had in bargaining over the last year in the UPS, auto industry and Hollywood negotiations is likely to encourage more workers to organize.”

But the full results of those events won’t be seen in the membership numbers for another year or two, Bruno said. He noted that the latest data “understates the degree of interest and support within the nonunion labor force.”

“Over the past year, workers have exercised their power by going on strike in record numbers, winning historic contracts with major raises, and confronting some of the largest corporations in the economy to demand a voice on the job through a union,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C. However, she added, “It’s way too hard to win a voice on the job.”

HR professionals need to realize that eliminating problems from the work environment “is the best way to continue direct dealings with workers,” Lotito said. “Doing so is not an event, but an ongoing process.”

The latest BLS data reveals the limited reach of unions, and it challenges “the mainstream narrative of a surging labor movement and instead shows no growth for labor unions,” according to a report by the Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla.


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