Record-Low Union Membership Rates in the US Contradict Rising Support: Labor Department Report

WASHINGTON (AP) — The share of American workers in unions hit a record low in 2023, despite an increase in union membership, according to the Labor Department. Last year saw high-profile strikes by autoworkers, Hollywood writers and actors, and Kaiser health-care workers. These strikes led to an increase of 139,000 union members in the United States, but the overall union membership rate dropped to a new low of 10 percent.

The decline in union membership rates has been a long-standing trend since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in 1983. At their peak in the 1950s, unions represented more than one in three workers in the United States. However, the decrease in 2023 was primarily driven by a drop in public-sector union membership, which fell to 32.5 percent. In contrast, union membership rates in the private sector held steady at 6 percent.

The decline in union membership rates can be attributed to the robust growth of nonunion positions in the labor market. The addition of 2.7 million jobs in 2023 favored nonunion positions, causing the decline in the union membership rate. Additionally, some states have implemented measures to limit or ban union rights for government workers, further contributing to the decrease in public-sector union membership.

Despite the decline in union membership rates, support for unions among Americans has been steadily increasing. Gallup polling shows that support for unions reached 67 percent in 2023, the highest in a decade. The year also saw a significant increase in strikes, making it one of the three biggest strike years since 1990. Successful organizing efforts were seen at previously nonunion companies such as Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Wells Fargo, and REI.

While President Biden has championed the cause of unions and emphasized creating union jobs, the decline in union membership rates raises questions about the effectiveness of his pro-union policies. The difficult process for American workers to join unions and the challenges posed by U.S. labor law have hindered efforts to maintain union membership rates. According to research, union workers earn about 10 to 15 percent higher wages than nonunion workers in similar positions.

Union membership rates continue to be higher for men compared to women, but the gap has been narrowing. Black workers have a higher union membership rate compared to White workers and other racial groups.

The decline in union membership rates reflects a complex landscape for labor unions in the United States. As the labor market evolves and nonunion positions grow, unions face ongoing challenges in organizing and maintaining their membership.