The share of the workforce in unions in the United States has been in a near-steady decline since the mid-1950s. Membership hit a record low of 10.3 percent in 2019 and matched that again in 2021, after a small uptick in 2020. At unions’ peak in the 1950s, more than 1 in 3 workers belonged to them.
The disappointing numbers for the U.S. labor movement come at a time of unprecedented worker leverage because of the tight labor market — conditions that tend to favor unions and labor activism. American workers, particularly in low-wage jobs, have been able to demand higher pay and better treatment from employers, as labor participation rates remain low and job openings remain high with close to two job openings for every job seeker over the past year. That trend is only beginning to ease.
Union efforts and labor activism tend to flourish in tight labor markets, where job opportunities are abundant, since employers are less likely to retaliate against workers when they’re a scarce resource.
But the forces that have contributed to the ongoing decline of union membership over the past several decades remain stronger than ever, labor advocates say. Employer opposition to unions, labor laws that do little to deter anti-union behavior and the inability of unions to win new members in fast-expanding industries continue to weaken unions.
Heidi Shierholz, president of the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute, said that 2022 “was a year of real worker power, due to huge job openings. The question will be whether that comes out on top compared to the very, very strong downward pressure on unionization, because of employer opposition.”
In 2022, union membership in the public sector, at 33.1 percent, continued to be outpace the private sector, at 6 percent. Private employers have tended to take a more adversarial stance toward unions than government employers. Unions have struggled to gain a foothold in private industries that have grown rapidly in recent decades as the economy has shifted away from goods-production to services.
Union membership rates are higher among Black workers compared with White and Latino workers, in part due to higher levels of public-sector employment among Black workers. Black union membership rates rose in 2022 to 11.6 percent, meanwhile White and Latino membership rates fell to 10 and 8.8 percent, respectively.
Hawaii and New York continued to lead the country with the highest rates of union membership, at 21.9 and 20.7 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, South Carolina had the lowest rates at 1.7 percent.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement last year that historically low union membership in the country “leaves much to be desired for organized labor leaders, to say the least” and urged union leaders to “think of ways to improve their product” other than pushing for legal changes that make it easier for workers to join unions.
The inability of the labor movement to recover lost ground during this moment of heightened enthusiasm for unions also weighs heavily on President Biden. The self-proclaimed “most pro-union president” in U.S. history, Biden has worked painstakingly at times to win the support of organized labor.
Biden has taken extraordinary steps to support unions during his presidency, including inviting the leaders of new unions at Amazon and Starbucks to the White House last May, installing an advocate for workers to run the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and passing legislation that he says will create good-paying union jobs. Still, the White House found itself in an awkward position with railroad unions in November, after forcing a deal that thousands of unionized railroad workers had rejected.
The lackluster figures reflect how far unions have to go to see an upsurge in membership, especially in a year of booming job growth. More than 5 million jobs were created in 2022 across the economy, especially in industries where union membership is lower, such as leisure and hospitality, meaning union jobs did not outpace the growth of nonunion jobs. The economy also launched millions of new businesses, where jobs rarely start off unionized. And many of the high-profile victories at Starbucks, Apple and REI, for example, added a relatively small number of union members. A 2022 Bloomberg analysis of labor data found that the average unionized Starbucks store added 27 workers to union rolls.
Despite the continued low union numbers, labor historians say there’s been a major shift underway, propelled by pandemic conditions, in how Americans view unions. More Americans said they approved of unions in 2022 than at any point since 1965 — some 71 percent of those polled, according to Gallup.
The NLRB, which oversees union elections in the United States, reported a 53 percent increase in union election filings in fiscal 2022 compared with the previous year. This increase was in part driven by a grass-roots campaign at Starbucks that successfully unionized more than 270 locations last year, in an industry that had 1.4 percent union density in 2022.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the recent upswing in public support for unions could be the start of a tide change that transforms how companies respond to unionization. He noted Microsoft’s recent decision to take a neutral stance toward a union drive at video game giant Activision Blizzard ahead of a controversial attempt to acquire it.
“There is unquestionably enormously heightened pro-union sentiment among college-educated young people, from baristas to journalists,” Lichtenstein said. “We could see companies deciding that the lesser evil in terms of government regulation or revolutionary activity is having a unionized workforce. I can think of many historical analogies. But right now, with the law not changing and strong employer opposition, this is the situation we’re in.”