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Union Membership Trends: Who’s to Blame for the Decline

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Published: May 28, 2024

The United States has a long history of labor unions. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886, with 1.4 million members. Labor unions from this age gave many benefits to their members, like

  • Increased wages
  • Shorter working hours
  • Enhanced workplace safety. 

Fast-forward to the 1930s, unions brought improvements like fair employment practices and vacation pay during World War II, in addition to the above benefits. 

These were the eras when unions were the only hope for workers. In fact, the union membership rate in 1983, the first year for which the data is available, was 20.1% – every fifth worker was a paying union member. However, the trends are not the same anymore.

Let’s see what union membership trends look like now.

Note: References are listed at the end of the article.

Union membership trends in the United States

So, are unions increasing or decreasing? What is the overall union membership rate?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has released data indicating that the union membership rate among wage and salary workers in 2023 remained steady at 10%, with 14.4 million unionized workers, showing a minimal change from the previous year. 

However, compared to 1983 figures, there has been a significant decline.

union-membership-trends-1983-2022

What industry has the highest union membership?

union-membership-trends-by-industry

US union affiliation 2023, by industry

In 2023, union membership was highest in the public sector unions, particularly among local government workers, where approximately 38.4 percent were union members. 

In the private sector, workers in the transportation and utilities industry had the highest union membership rates, with around 16.5 percent being union members.

Union membership trends by demographics

Union membership trends by gender

In 2023, union membership rates between men and women became more similar, but men experienced a sharper decline. Specifically, 10.5 percent of working men were union members, while 9.5 percent of women were union members.

Union membership trends by race and ethnicity

union-membership-trends-by-race-ethnicity

The Black and African American working population continues to have the highest union membership rates. Meanwhile, between 2022 and 2023, Asian workers experienced a decline in their union membership rate, decreasing from 8.3 percent to 7.8 percent. 

You may also like: Union Authorization Card 101: All You Must Know Before Asking for Signs

Union membership trends by age

In 2023, union membership rates varied by age group in the United States. Approximately 12.6 percent of workers aged 45 to 54 were union members, compared to 11.1 percent of those aged 35 to 44. Membership rates were lowest among workers aged 16 to 24.

union-membership-trends-by-age
US union membership 2023, by age

Union membership trends by job type

Education, training, and library workers had the highest unionization rate at 32.7 percent, followed by protective service occupations at 31.9 percent.   

Union membership trends by education level

Union membership rate increased by 0.8% to 11% among people without a bachelor’s degree. Despite a significant decline in the total number of union members among high school graduates, the membership rate in this group increased by 0.4%, reaching 10%.

The number of members (by 74,000) and the rates (by 0.2%, bringing them to 15.5%) increased among people with advanced degrees.  

Which state has the highest union membership rate?

In 2023, Hawaii had the highest union membership rate at 24.1 percent, while South Carolina had the lowest at 2.3 percent.

StateUnion Membership Rate (%)
Hawaii24.1
New York20.6
Washington16.5
New Jersey16.1
Connecticut15.9
California15.4
Alaska14.8
Vermont14.3
Oregon14.1
Minnesota13.3
Pennsylvania12.9
Illinois12.8
Michigan12.6
Massachusetts12.5
Ohio12.4
Nevada12.3
Rhode Island11.8
Montana10.7
Maryland9.3
Missouri9.3
New Hampshire9.2
Maine9.1
District of Columbia8.9
Kansas8.8
Delaware8.8
Kentucky8.8
West Virginia8.7
Indiana8.0
Alabama7.5
New Mexico7.5
Wisconsin7.5
Nebraska7.4
Iowa7.3
Mississippi7.2
Colorado7.0
Oklahoma6.9
North Dakota6.8
Tennessee6.2
Wyoming6.0
Arkansas5.6
Florida5.1
Georgia4.7
Idaho4.6
Texas4.5
Louisiana4.5
Virginia4.3
Arizona4.3
Utah4.2
South Dakota4.1
North Carolina3.6
South Carolina2.7
North Dakota2.3
US union membership rate 2023, by state

TL;DR: Highlights from the 2023 union membership trends:

  • The public-sector union membership rate was 32.5%, over five times higher than the private sector’s 6%.
  • The highest unionization rates were in education, training, and library occupations (32.7%) and protective service occupations (31.9%).
  • Men had a higher union membership rate (10.5%) than women (9.5%).
  • Black workers were more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers.
  • Nonunion workers earned 86% of what union members earned ($1,090 vs. $1,263 per week).
  • Hawaii (24.1%) and New York (20.6%) had the highest union membership rates by state, while South Carolina (2.3%) and North Carolina (2.7%) had the lowest. 

Also read: Use these union membership software to attract new members.

Why is union membership declining?

Union membership rates in the United States have declined for several decades. This trend can be attributed to various interrelated factors, like:

  • Economic shifts
  • Labor laws and regulations
  • Employer resistance to union
  • Globalization
  • Workforce demographics
  • Technological advancements
  • Economic recessions

Let’s see each in detail.

Economic shifts

The transition from manufacturing to a service and technology-based economy has significantly reduced the number of traditionally unionized jobs. Historically, unions have had a stronger presence in the industrial sector. 

However, the industrial sector, particularly manufacturing, has not experienced significant job growth in recent years. While manufacturing jobs peaked at 19.6 million in 1970, they fell to 12.8 million by 2019. This decline has contributed to the overall decrease in union membership.

Labor laws and regulations

Changes in labor laws and regulations have impacted union membership. Right-to-work laws, which allow employees to work without being required to join a union, have been enacted in several states, leading to lower union membership rates. 

Employer resistance

Increased efforts by employers to resist unionization, including anti-union campaigns and legal tactics, have made it more difficult for labor unions to organize and maintain membership. This has been a significant factor in why union membership rates are declining.

Globalization

The globalization of the economy has led to offshoring and outsourcing of jobs to countries with lower labor costs. US manufacturers, such as carmakers and steel producers, face stiff competition from foreign imports. 

This increased competition has reduced demand for US-made products, resulting in job losses in union-dominated industries. As manufacturing jobs decline, so does labor unions’ bargaining power; consequently, the overall unionization rate suffers.

Workforce demographics

Changes in workforce demographics, including the rise of the gig economy, have made unionization more challenging. These non-traditional employment arrangements often lack the collective bargaining structures facilitating union membership. 

The shift towards more flexible, freelance, and part-time work means fewer workers are in stable, long-term positions where unionization is more feasible. This demographic shift partly explains the decline in union membership rates.

Technological advancements

Automation and technological advancements have displaced many unionized workers in industries like manufacturing and transportation. As machines and technology replace human labor, particularly in union-heavy sectors, unionized jobs decrease.

Economic recessions

Economic downturns and recessions often lead to job losses in unionized sectors, further reducing membership numbers. Additionally, economic pressures can lead to concessions from unions, potentially weakening their appeal to workers.

Union membership trends: FAQs

What was the peak of union membership?

The union membership rate in the United States is estimated to have peaked at 35% in 1954. However, the total number of members peaked in 1979, estimated at 20.1 million. 

Is the membership of unions in the private sector increasing or decreasing?

In the private sector, unionization levels increased, with over a quarter million (261,000) more workers joining unions, leading to a growth in the unionization rate from 6.8% to 6.9%. 

What trends prevailed with union membership and strikes in the 1930s?

In the 1930s, there was a significant surge in union membership and strike activity in the United States. This period marked a pivotal moment in labor history, characterized by widespread labor unrest and the rise of organized labor movements. 

major-strikes
Major strikes and labor movements in the 1930s

Workers across various industries, particularly in manufacturing and mining, joined unions in large numbers to demand better wages, working conditions, and rights. The Great Depression, harsh working conditions, and widespread economic inequality fueled discontent among workers and led to a wave of strikes and labor activism. 

These trends ultimately contributed to the passage of landmark labor laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, which granted workers the right to organize unions and collectively bargain with employers. 

Why are young people not joining their union?

Neoliberal policies have weakened unions, reducing their appeal among younger generations. Changes in labor markets, like casualization (the shift towards more short-term, contract, and freelance work), make organizing more difficult. 

Many young people fail to see the value of union membership due to disillusionment and a focus on consumption. They may not grasp unions’ role in protecting workers’ rights and interests.

Is the current trend of declining union membership reversible, and if so, how?

Yes, the trend of declining union membership is reversible, but it requires significant policy changes at both the federal and state levels. 

Here’s how:

  1. The current union election system is undemocratic, leaving workers vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and illegal firing. Policy changes should ensure that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certifies the union when most employees have signed authorizations designating the union as their bargaining representative.
  2. Employers often try to delay negotiating with newly formed unions to weaken support. Legislation should mandate a fair and timely bargaining process, including mediation and binding arbitration, when employers refuse to negotiate in good faith.
  3. Employers who violate labor laws are not subject to civil penalties, which provides little incentive for compliance. Labor law should be amended to impose civil penalties commensurate with financial and corporate law violations.
  4. Workers whose rights are violated should have access to meaningful remedies. Amending the National Labor Relations Act to allow for treble damages for illegally discharged workers would provide a stronger deterrent against violations.
  5. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act at the federal level and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act for public-sector workers would strengthen workers’ right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
  6. States can play a crucial role by repealing right-to-work laws, strengthening collective bargaining rights for all workers, and safeguarding public employee union rights from political attacks.

When did unions start to decline?

Union membership started to decline in the late 1970s, coinciding with economic shifts, changes in labor laws, and increased employer resistance to unionization.

It’s a no-brainer that decreasing numbers are a concern. Learning the union membership trends in detail and working towards increasing your union membership is a good first step to regain the lost or declining membership. Here’s a guide to help you get more workers on board.

References:

  1. A look at union membership rates across industries in 2020
  2. News release, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers in the United States in 2023, by industry
  4. Share of workers who are members of labor unions in the United States from 1983 to 2023, by gender
  5. Share of workers who are union members in the United States from 2000 to 2023, by race and ethnicity
  6. Share of workers who are members of unions in the United States in 2023, by age
  7. Union membership numbers show momentum remains strong despite staffing shortages
  8. Economic news release, US Bureau of Labor Statistics
  9. Trade unions in transition: What will be their role in the future of work?
  10. Labor unions in the United States
  11. Union membership levels increased in 2023 as the private sector saw gains and the public sector saw losses
  12. Strikes & Unions
  13. Why are young people not joining their Union?
  14. Workers want unions, but the latest data point to obstacles in their path
  15. A Brief History of Unions

Editor’s note: This post has been updated for clarity and to include the latest information on union membership trends.

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