The decrease in the union membership rate happened because the labor market added a whopping 2.7 million jobs in 2o23, with nonunion positions growing at a faster pace than union ones.
The decline in 2023 was driven by a drop in public-sector union membership to 32.5 percent, data shows, where union density is still roughly five times higher than in private industry. This happened as some states pushed to limit or ban government workers’ union rights. Union membership rates in the private sector held steady at 6 percent, because private sector job gains were so strong.
The share of Americans in unions hit a previous low in 2022 as a booming employment market coming out of the worst of the pandemic created even more jobs.
The decline of union membership rates, a widely used indicator of union power, has been going on 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 also complicates President Biden’s self-proclaimed record as the country’s “most pro-union” president and emphasis on creating union jobs. His biggest accomplishments for the labor movement include approving trillions of dollars in spending on infrastructure and semiconductor and climate packages that incentivize companies to hire union workers.
The shrinking of the U.S. labor movement contrasts sharply with growing evidence that Americans are on the side of labor unions. Support for unions has soared over the past decade, at 67 percent last year, after hitting a record low during the Great Recession, according to Gallup polling. Indeed, 2023 marked one of the three biggest strike years since 1990, according to Bloomberg Law’s database of work stoppages. And a new wave of successful organizing also notched victories at previously nonunion companies, such as Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Wells Fargo and REI.
Research shows that union workers earn about 10 to 15 percent higher wages than nonunion workers in similar positions.
This disconnect is largely a product of how difficult it has become for American workers to join unions, said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. Unionization is often an arduous process that can take months or even years. When businesses form, jobs start off as nonunion positions. Workers can gain union status through democratic elections that typically occur one workplace at a time.
Maintaining union membership rates requires “really active [union] organizing just to keep up with the natural churn in our labor market,” Shierholz said. “It’s a long slog that goes on and on.”
Adding to the challenges, U.S. labor law is “highly stacked against workers,” Shierholz added, with current penalties for illegal retaliation against workers hardly serving as a deterrent for employers looking to crush union activity. Recent efforts to secure first union contracts at Amazon and Starbucks have stalled in the face of pushback from companies. Starbucks denies findings from the National Labor Relations Board that it has refused to bargain in good faith.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said declining union membership numbers suggest that unions are not as popular as the Biden administration has made out, criticizing the White House for “put[ting] its thumb firmly on the scale for unions above all others.”
Union membership rates continued to remain higher for men, at 10.5 percent, than for 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, remained higher than union membership rates for White workers, at 9.8 percent, and other racial groups.