Although unions took on more workers in 2023, the share of American workers in unions fell to a record low, marked by high-profile strikes including auto workers, Hollywood writers and actors, and Kaiser health workers.
The union membership rate fell by a tenth of a percentage point last year to 10 percent, the Labor Department said Tuesday, while total union membership in the U.S. rose to 139,000 last year. The private sector compensates for the loss of government jobs.
The decline in union membership rates occurred as the labor market added 2.7 million jobs in 2o23.
The decline in 2023 saw public sector union membership drop to 32.5 percent, with union density roughly five times higher than in private industry, the data show. This happened as some states moved to limit or ban the union rights of government employees. Union membership rates in the private sector remained steady at 6 percent, as private sector job opportunities remained very strong.
The share of Americans in unions reached an all-time low in 2022 as a booming job market emerges from the worst of the pandemic.
The decline in union membership rates, a widely used indicator of union power, has been ongoing since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in 1983. At their peak in the 1950s, unions represented more than 1 in 3 workers in the United States. .
The new data complicates President Biden's self-proclaimed record as the nation's “most pro-union” president and emphasis on union job creation. His biggest achievements for the labor movement include spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure and semiconductors and climate packages encouraging companies to hire union workers.
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The shrinking of the US labor movement contrasts sharply with growing evidence that Americans are siding with unions. According to a Gallup poll, support for unions has risen over the past decade, reaching 67 percent last year. In fact, 2023 marked the three biggest strike years since 1990, according to Bloomberg Law's strike database. A new wave of successful organizing has succeeded at previously non-union companies such as Starbucks, Trader Joe's, Wells Fargo, and REI.
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Research shows Union workers earn 10 to 15 percent more than non-union workers in the same position.
The disconnect is largely a result of how difficult it has become for American workers to join unions, said Heidi Schierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-wing think tank in Washington. Or even years. As businesses develop, jobs begin as non-union positions. Workers can gain union status through democratic elections, usually held one workplace at a time.
To maintain union membership rates “really active [union] We are arranging for natural chaos to continue in our labor market,” said Schierholz. “It's been a long slog and it continues.”
Adding to the challenges, US labor law is “heavily stacked against workers,” Shierholz added, adding that existing penalties for illegal retaliation against workers do not act as a deterrent to employers seeking to suppress union activity. Recent efforts to secure the first union contracts at Amazon and Starbucks have stalled in the face of pushback from the companies. Starbucks disputes the National Labor Relations Board's findings that it refused to bargain in good faith.
The US Chamber of Commerce has criticized the White House, saying unions aren't as popular as the Biden administration has made out as union membership declines.[ting] Its thumb is firmly on the scale for unions above all else.”
Union membership rates continue to rise, with men at 10.5 percent and women at 9.5 percent, though that gap has been closing over the years. The share of black workers in unions, at 11.8 percent, was higher than union membership rates for white workers, at 9.8 percent, and for other racial groups.