Center for American Progress

Protecting and Strengthening the Right To Organize

Protecting and Strengthening the Right To Organize

Policymakers can address the unique challenges working women face by enhancing the right to collective bargaining to benefit all workers and grow the economy.

Photo shows two women holding signs in front of a grey building. One sign says
United Auto Workers (UAW) employees picket outside an assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, September 2023. (Getty/Scott Olson)

Other chapters in the Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy

For generations, unions have helped to reduce gender-based disparities in employment and wages in the United States.1 Being in a union helps workers receive better wages, secure critical workplace benefits, and have an avenue to address workplace discrimination and harassment. In supporting workers, unions also contribute to growing the U.S. economy and creating a more inclusive economy.2

Over the past four decades, however, union membership and representation dropped alarmingly in the United States. This decline in unionization has suppressed wage growth and increased wage inequality—hurting middle- and low-income workers.3

Support for unions has grown in the United States over the past decade, with public approval ratings of unions in 2022 reaching the highest level since 1965.4 Research by the Center for American Progress shows that this support exists across gender and generations. In 2023, among women, Generation Z boasts the highest mean union approval rate, at 63 percent, though Millennials (62 percent), Generation X (59 percent), and Baby Boomers (59 percent) are not far behind.5

It is up to state and federal policymakers to meet this moment and enhance the right to collective bargaining for all workers. Federal policymakers should enact nationwide U.S. labor market reforms to boost the ability of workers to organize, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act. At the same time, state policymakers should pass legislation to improve and expand workers’ union organizing rights and protections, such as repealing so-called right-to-work laws and allowing workers who are not covered by federal collective bargaining protections, such as agricultural workers and home care workers, to organize. This chapter of the “Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy” details the problem of declines in union membership and representation, the economic benefits of resolving them, and the federal and state policy recommendations for doing so.

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The problem

Over the past four decades, union membership rates fell by half, from 20 percent in 1983, the first year that union affiliation data were uniformly collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to 10 percent in 2023.6 Union representation rates, which include both union members and nonunion workers covered by a union contract, fell from 23 percent to 11 percent over the same time period.7 In the private sector, union membership dropped from 17 percent to just 6 percent.8 This decline is largely the result of corporations that often engage in legal and illegal anti-union behaviors to undermine workers’ right to come together in unions, alongside weak labor laws that exclude many workers and provide insufficient penalties for even the worst violators.9

Women made up 46 percent of all workers represented by a union in 2023, up from 35 percent in 1983.10 Yet this increase in the share of the total unionized population masks a significant decline among both women and men in the likelihood of being represented by a union. In 1983, 18 percent of employed women were represented by a union, compared with 28 percent of employed men, representing a sizable gender gap.11 This gender gap was substantially narrower in 2023, with union representation rates at 11 percent for women and 12 percent for men, but corresponds with a significant drop in overall union affiliation rates.12

Older women are more likely than younger women to be represented by a union. Fourteen percent of women ages 45–54 were represented by unions in 2023, compared with 9 percent of women ages 25–34.13 Black, non-Hispanic women have the highest rate (12 percent) of union affiliation among racial and ethnic groups for women.14 Additionally, full-time workers were twice as likely (12 percent) as part-time workers (6 percent) to be represented by a union. This may have greater impacts on women given that women make up 60 percent of part-time workers, largely due to disproportionate caregiving responsibilities.15

The economic benefits

Women face long-standing barriers to full and equitable participation in the U.S. labor market, but unions can help address these barriers. Unions benefit women, and all workers, by improving wages and gender wage gaps, helping families build wealth, securing critical workplace benefits, and presenting avenues to address workplace discrimination and harassment.

Higher pay

Unions improve wages and benefits for all workers and help close gender wage gaps.16 Unionized workers can collectively bargain for better pay and benefits, negotiate for increased pay transparency, and hold employers accountable for enforcing pay equity policies.17 As a result, they earn higher median hourly wages than similar workers not covered by a union.18

Specifically, women covered by a union earn 4.7 percent more than their nonunion counterparts.19 These higher wages reduce inequality and improve women and their families’ economic security, especially that of Black and Hispanic women, who are disproportionately their families’ breadwinners.20 Higher wages in turn help boost U.S. economic growth through additional spending and investment.

Furthermore, gender wage gaps are lower among union workers—those covered by a collective bargaining agreement—than among nonunion workers, controlling for gender, race and ethnicity, education, experience, and geographic division.21 In 2016, nonunion women’s average hourly pay was 78 percent of that of nonunion men’s pay, but among women covered by a union, it was 82 percent.22 Higher wages and smaller gender wage gaps compound over a woman’s lifetime, boosting her and her family’s economic security.

More wealth

The advantages of unions build wealth for families. In fact, the median union household from 2010 to 2019 had more than twice the wealth ($270,000) of the median nonunion household ($120,000). The union wealth premium is even more profound for Black and Hispanic families, whose median household wealth is lower than that of white families: Over the same time period, the median Black and Hispanic nonunion households had $29,000 and $24,000, respectively, while their union counterparts had $101,000 and $125,000.23

Unions’ positive impact on closing racial and ethnic wealth gaps also is a result of better access to workplace benefits. Workers covered by a union have higher rates of access to health care, retirement, and leave benefits that build wealth and improve work-family balance for all workers.24 Union members, for example, are more likely to have 401(k) benefits plans and a defined benefit pension compared with nonunion members.25 These trends are even higher among union Hispanic households.26 One analysis finds that unionized women are 53 percent more likely than comparable nonunion women to have an employer-sponsored retirement plan.27 Unions’ ability to secure retirement plans builds wealth for women and is critical to older women’s economic security.28

Other job benefits

Union workers are more likely than nonunion workers to receive health insurance benefits. This premium is seen among women in a range of typically low-wage jobs and is especially pronounced among women with the lowest levels of formal education.29 Work sites of firms with a union presence are notably more likely to offer medical, parental, and caregiving leave than those without a union presence.30 Union-represented workers are also 17 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than nonunion workers.31

Unions also can provide a forum for workers to negotiate over other barriers women face in the workplace, such as unfair scheduling.32 A report by the National Women’s Law Center found that parents employed in low-wage retail, fast-food, and home care jobs—roles disproportionately held by women—struggle with schedules that are unpredictable and inflexible or may only offer part-time work that leaves them financially insecure.33

Notably, unpredictable scheduling practices can harm businesses’ productivity.34 When unions prioritize women’s needs, such as longer maternity leave and job protection, in collective bargaining processes, these needs are more likely to be met, which results in improved retention, and longer job queues, with no harms to profits.35

Better enforcement of employee rights and employer responsibilities

Importantly, unions can help workers actually get the benefits they need by holding employers accountable for the enforcement of workplace policies and laws. Unions, for example, increase workers’ use of federally guaranteed unpaid leave by monitoring employers’ compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Companies with any unionized employees are 1.7 times as likely to comply with the FMLA rules and regulations than companies without any unionized employees.36

Unions also influence how often workers avail themselves of benefits and workplace protections. Unions often assist workers with navigating their benefit choices and inform workers about their rights.37 Improving enforcement of and access to workplace protections and benefits is good for all workers, but it can especially benefit women, who face persistent gender wage gaps and bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities.

Combating workplace discrimination and harassment

Unions advocate for workers experiencing discrimination and harassment; negotiate and provide sample language for the inclusion of anti-discrimination and harassment policies in collective bargaining agreements; and provide protections against retaliation for workers who come forward with complaints.38 The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for example, negotiated for more protective contracts for janitorial workers and helped pass legislation requiring sexual harassment training for janitorial employees and their supervisors in California in 2016 and in Oregon in 2017.39

Unions have also secured contracts that protect hospitality workers against sexual harassment and succeeded in campaigns to get these protections passed into law.40 UNITE HERE, a hospitality workers union, has championed an initiative to provide hotel housekeepers with panic buttons to report sexual harassment. This initiative was won in union contracts in New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2012.41

Unions also help workers navigate internal complaint mechanisms to report instances of discrimination and harassment or file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.42 In 2016, Fight for $15, a group formed by the SEIU, filed sexual harassment complaints with the federal agency on behalf of workers at McDonald’s Corp. restaurants and franchises.43

Unions also help rectify occupational segregation—where women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs and underrepresented in high-paying ones—by helping women, especially women of color, enter into male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, through labor-management partnerships.44

The policy recommendations

Federal and state policymakers must enact labor law reforms that strengthen the right to organize, which in turn would help create good-quality jobs for all workers, including women. The different kinds of policy recommendations at these two levels of government, if enacted, would together ensure that workers, including women, are more financially secure, contributing to economic growth.

Federal policy recommendations

Federal laws to boost union membership are key to nationwide union organization efforts. Specifically, federal policymakers need to pass:

  • The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act: This bill would implement a range of reforms that bolster workers’ ability to unionize, including:
    • Allowing workers and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to set union election processes
    • Banning captive audience meetings convened by anti-union firms
    • Requiring the NLRB to assess monetary penalties for unfair labor practices and reinstate workers when they are illegally fired for union activity
    • Banning arbitration agreements that waive an employee’s right to collective or class action litigation
    • Establishing better protections for independent contractors and ensuring workers are not misclassified
    • Ensuring states allow employers and unions to enter into agreements in which all employees covered by the union pay their fair share of bargaining costs
    • Requiring employers to engage in timely collective bargaining processes
    • Protecting workers’ right to strike45
  • The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act: This bill would protect and expand the right of state, local, and territorial public employees to unionize and collectively bargain.46
  • The Federal Tax Fairness for Workers Act: This bill would restore the deductibility of union dues, as well as common employment expenses such as travel and uniform costs. This will create a fairer system in which workers are granted the same treatment as corporations, which can deduct business expenses.47
  • The Schedules That Work Act: This bill would give workers more certainty over their schedules, as it would require employers to post schedules at least two weeks in advance and ensure workers can request scheduling changes without discrimination or retaliation.48

State policy recommendations

State-level actions to boost union membership would both complement and improve upon the federal policy recommendations detailed above. Specifically, states should consider the following policy recommendations:

  • Improve and expand bargaining protections for public employees: States should modernize and strengthen collective bargaining procedures and expand the right to join a union and collectively bargain to all public sector workers. This includes allowing unions to communicate with workers through modern and convenient means and enabling an employee organization to be verified as the employee representative if it can show the state government that half of the employees in the proposed bargaining unit are in favor of representation.49
  • Allow workers not covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to unionize and collectively bargain: States can step up to fill this gap created by federal law. Currently, California and New York state provide these rights for their agricultural workers, while Oregon and Washington state do so for their self-employed home care workers.50 Other states should cover workers who are federally excluded from NLRA collective bargaining protections.
  • Repeal so-called right-to-work laws for private sector employees: States should allow a private employer and a labor organization to enter into a collective bargaining agreement that requires all employees represented by a union to pay their fair share of collective bargaining costs.51 
  • Establish stronger protections for workers on strike: Protections during strikes could include protecting workers from unfair legal liability, interference, or intimidation and granting unemployment insurance benefits to workers on strike.52
  • Allow union members to deduct union dues from taxes: Passing an above-the-line deduction for union dues would allow union members to deduct these costs even if they do not itemize. This reform would create a fairer system in which workers are granted the same treatment as corporations who can deduct business expenses.53


Unions encourage democratic participation in which workers can bring forward the needs of, and deliver real wins for, working women. Strengthening worker power also will build equitable workplaces that respond to the unique challenges working women face and uplift women, their families, and the economy.

The author would like to thank Molly Weston Williamson, Sara Estep, Rose Khattar, Karla Walter, Jessica Vela, and Anona Neal for their helpful feedback and assistance.


  1. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Labor Unions and the Middle Class” (Washington: 2023), available at
  2. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Fact Sheet: Treasury Department Releases First-Of-Its-Kind Report on Benefits of Unions to the U.S. Economy,” Press release, August 28, 2023, available at
  3. Lawrence Mishel, “The enormous impact of eroded collective bargaining on wages” (Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 2021), available at
  4. Lydia Saad, “More in U.S. See Unions Strengthening and Want It That Way,” Gallup, August 30, 2023, available at; Justin McCarthy, “U.S. Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965,” Gallup, August 30, 2022, available at
  5. Aurelia Glass, “Voluntary Recognition of Unions Is Increasingly Popular Among U.S. Employers,” Center for American Progress, January 18, 2023, available at; Aurelia Glass, “The Closing Gender, Education, and Ideological Divides Behind Gen Z’s Union Movement” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2023), available at
  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union affiliation data from the Current Population Survey: Percent of employed, members of unions: Series ID: LUU0204899600,” available at (last accessed January 2024).
  7. U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics, “Union affiliation data from the Current Population Survey: Percent of employed, Represented by unions: Series ID: LUU0204899700,” available at (last accessed January 2024).
  8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Percent of employed, Private wage and salary workers, Members of unions: Series ID: LUU0204906600,” available at (last accessed January 2024).
  9. Lawrence Mishel, Lynn Rhinehart, and Lane Windham, “Explaining the erosion of private-sector unions” (Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 2020), available at
  10. Author’s calculation using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 1. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by selected characteristics: Series IDs: LUU0203161900 and LUU0203165100,” available at (last accessed January 2024).
  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union affiliation data from the Current Population Survey: Percent of employed, Represented by unions, Women: Series ID: LUU0204902900,” available at (last accessed January 2024); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union affiliation data from the Current Population Survey: Percent of employed, Represented by unions, Men: Series ID: LUU0204901300,” available at (last accessed January 2024).
  12. Ibid.; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union affiliation data from the Current Population Survey: Percent of employed, Represented by unions: Series ID: LUU0204899700.”
  13. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 1. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by selected characteristics,” available at (last accessed January 2024).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.; Lauren Hoffman and Isabela Salas-Betsch, “Including All Women Workers in Wage Gap Calculations,” Center for American Progress, May 24, 2022, available at
  16. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Labor Unions and the Middle Class.”
  17. Elise Gould and Celine McNicholas, “Unions help narrow the gender wage gap,” Economic Policy Institute, April 3, 2017, available at
  18. Economic Policy Institute, “Unions help reduce disparities and strengthen our democracy,” April 23, 2021, available at
  19. Ibid.
  20. Sarah Jane Glynn, “Breadwinning Mothers Are Critical to Families’ Economic Security,” Center for American Progress, March 29, 2021, available at
  21. Gould and McNicholas, “Unions help narrow the gender wage gap.”
  22. Ibid.
  23. Aurelia Glass, David Madland, and Christian E. Weller, “Unions Build Wealth for the American Working Class” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2023), available at
  24. Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Nicole Woo, “Women, Working Families, and Unions” (Washington: Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2014), available at
  25. Glass, Madland, and Weller, “Unions Help Increase Wealth for All and Close Racial Wealth Gaps.”
  26. Ibid.
  27. Jones, Schmitt, and Woo, “Women, Working Families, and Unions.”
  28. Glass, Madland, and Weller, “Unions Help Increase Wealth for All and Close Racial Wealth Gaps.”
  29. Jones, Schmitt, and Woo, “Women, Working Families, and Unions.”
  30. Helene Jorgensen and Eileen Appelbaum, “Expanding Family and Medical Leave to Small Firms” (Washington: Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2014), p. 3, available at
  31. Tae-Youn Park, Eun-Suk Lee, and John W. Budd, “What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 72 (3) (2019): 662–692, available at
  32. Josh Bivens and others, “How today’s unions help working people” (Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 2017), available at; Chris Isidore, “It’s not just money. Unions are fighting for better schedules, safety and work conditions,” CNN, September 12, 2022, available at
  33. Julie Vogtman and Karen Schulman, “Set Up to Fail: When Low-Wage Work Jeopardizes Parents’ and Children’s Success” (Washington: National Women’s Law Center, 2016), available at; Julie Vogtman and Jasmine Tucker, “Collateral Damage: Scheduling Challenges For Workers In Low-Wage Jobs And Their Consequences” (Washington: National Women’s Law Center, 2017), available at
  34. Heather Boushey and Bridget Ansel, “Working by the hour: The economic consequences of unpredictable scheduling practices” (Washington: Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 2016), available at
  35. Viola Corradini, Lorenzo Lagos, Garima Sharma, “Collective Bargaining for Women: How Unions Can Create Female-Friendly Jobs” (Bonn, Germany: Institute of Labor Economics, 2022), available at
  36. Jenifer MacGillvary and Netsy Firestein, “Family-Friendly Workplaces: Do Unions Make a Difference?” (Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the Labor Project for Working Families, 2009), available at
  37. David Madland Malkie Wall, “American Ghent: Designing Programs to Strengthen Unions and Improve Government Services” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at
  38. AFL-CIO, “Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: There Is Power in my Union,” (Washington: 2019), available at
  39. Diana Boesch, Jocelyn Frye, and Kaitlin Holmes, “Driving Change in States to Combat Sexual Harassment” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. AFL-CIO, “Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.”
  43. Daniel Wiessner, “McDonald’s, franchisees hit with sexual harassment complaints,” Reuters, October 5, 2016, available at
  44. Karla Walter, “Proven State and Local Strategies To Create Good Jobs With IIJA Infrastructure Funds” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2022), available at; Marina Zhavoronkova and Karla Walter, “How To Support Good Jobs and Workforce Equity on Federal Infrastructure Projects” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2023), available at
  45. Celine McNicholas, Margaret Poydock, and Lynn Rhinehart, “How the PRO Act restores workers’ right to unionize,” Economic Policy Institute, February 4, 2021, available at,NLRA%20face%20no%20civil%20penalties; Aurelia Glass and David Madland, “How Unions Are Crucial for Building Working-Class Economic Power,” Center for American Progress, June 21, 2023, available at
  46. The Office of U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, “Rep. Cartwright, Colleagues Introduce Bipartisan Legislation To Strengthen Public Workers’ Organizing Rights,” Press release, October 26, 202, available at https://Cartwright.House.Gov/News/Documentsingle.Aspx?Documentid=391960; Karla Walter and David Madland, “American Workers Need Unions: 3 Steps to Strengthen the Federal Labor Law System,” Center for American Progress Action Fund, April 2, 2019, available at
  47. The Office of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, “Casey Introduces Legislation to Make Tax Code Fairer for Workers, Combat Union Busting,” Press release, March 9, 2023, available at; Alexandra Thornton, “Why All Workers Should Be Able To Deduct Union Dues” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at
  48. Katherine Gallagher Robbins and Shirin Arslan, “Schedules That Work for Working Families,” Center for American Progress, December 18, 2017, available at
  49. Isabela Salas-Betsch and Karla Walter, “Workers Want Unions: How States Have Strengthened Worker Power in 2023,” Center for American Progress, November 1, 2023, available at; Malkie Wall and David Madland, “11 Things State and Local Governments Can Do to Build Worker Power” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at
  50. Wall and Madland, “11 Things State and Local Governments Can Do to Build Worker Power.”
  51. Salas-Betsch and Walter, “Workers Want Unions: How States Have Strengthened Worker Power in 2023.”
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid.

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Isabela Salas-Betsch

Research Associate, Women’s Initiative


Women’s Initiative

The Women’s Initiative develops robust, progressive policies and solutions to ensure all women can participate in the economy and live healthy, productive lives.

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