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American Union Membership at Record Lows

Despite highly publicized strike and organizing activity throughout 2023 and the most union-friendly President and NLRB in recent memory, American union membership dipped to a record low (10%).

The bottom line: While extensive media attention has been devoted to organized labor’s resurgence in recent years, union membership has not increased.

Why it matters: The disconnect between the spike in union activity (and unprecedently high public support) and actual union membership gains will provide more fodder for labor advocates for union-friendly changes to the law. 

By the numbers: 

  • According to newly released data from the Bureau of Labor statistics, the total – public and private sector – union membership rate in the U.S. dipped to 10%, a slight decline from 10.1% in 2022. 

  • Private sector union membership remained around 6%. 

  • Private sector industries with the highest unionization rates include utilities, transportation and warehousing, and education services. 

  • Private sector industries with the lowest unionization rates include finance, professional and technical services, and food services. 

What about all those union campaigns and strikes? 2023 saw an unprecedent rise in strike, organizing, and collective bargaining activity. Strikes in Hollywood, nursing, and the automobile industry, new collective bargaining agreements in the transportation industry and at the Big 3 automakers, and organizing campaigns at Starbucks and others, all captured significant media attention and high-profile support from the White House. Despite all this activity, union membership slightly declined in 2023. 

The disconnect between increased union activity, public support for unions, and tangible membership gains highlights the difficulties in maintaining a foothold at companies even after initial organizing wins. Highly touted election wins at Starbucks and others have thus far failed to materialize into actual collective bargaining agreements. Meanwhile, historic agreements in the auto industry, for example, involved long-running relationships between incumbent unions and management, and did not involve significant increases in union members. 

Fuel to the fire: This disconnect only provides further fodder for labor advocates to push for union-friendly changes to American labor laws. Organized labor will point to legal roadblocks – whether they exist or not – as the primary culprit for why increased organizing activity and historically high public support has not translated into actual membership gains. Expect renewed calls to further transform federal labor law to favor unions.

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Authors: Gregory Hoff

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