In spite of growing numbers of workers trying to form unions and rising public support for labor, union membership is likely to remain stagnant at about 10 percent of the workforce when the U.S. Department of Labor releases new data later this month. As membership remains stuck near 100-year lows, it is clear that even more grassroots activism and legal reforms to make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively are needed.
Despite growing support for unions, membership has remained stagnant
Workers today demonstrate great interest in forming unions and bargaining collectively. Nearly half of workers say they would like to join a union, and more than two-thirds of the public support unions. Growing numbers of workers are trying to form unions; indeed, there was more than a 50 percent jump in union petitions from 2021 to 2022 and a continued increase in 2023. Strike activity has also jumped significantly since 2020, with more than 420 strikes in 2023.
This grassroots activism has led to some major wins for workers. Nearly 1 million unionized workers secured double-digit percentage wage increases in 2023 by renegotiating their contracts in the auto industry, in Hollywood, at casinos, and in hospitals, among other fields.
Unfortunately, all this grassroots activism has, so far, failed to translate into significant increases in membership as a share of the workforce. Private sector union membership is just 6 percent, down from highs of 33 percent in the mid-20th century and lower than it has been since the 1930s. Decline has been near constant for several decades and has occurred in virtually every private sector industry—in sectors exposed to trade and those sheltered from it and in services, manufacturing, and construction.
Over the years, workers have occasionally succeeded in increasing the absolute number of union members, but membership has continued to decline as a share of the workforce because workers have struggled to organize enough new workplaces. Even rarer are the years when union density increases, such as in 2001 and 2020 and as some are predicting for 2023, but these increases have been very small and transitory. They have not changed the fundamental story.
The primary reason for the huge difference between worker interest and worker success is that U.S. labor law hinders workers from achieving their goals of forming unions and bargaining collectively. Corporations can intimidate workers and delay proceedings with few financial penalties for those employers that engage in illegal activities—something that occurs quite frequently, as employers illegally fire workers in about one-third of union organizing efforts. All told, just 1 in 7 union organizing drives successfully achieve a first contract, and these numbers plummet even further if an employer violates the law.
This has led some workers to choose not to take the risk of trying to form a union, while others struggle against the odds. Indeed, many workers—at places such as Starbucks, Trader Joes, and REI—successfully formed new unions in 2023 but have not been able to secure a collective bargaining agreement. Unfortunately, far too many companies take the union-busting path allowed by the law, though a small but growing number of firms, such as Microsoft, are choosing to freely allow their workers to unionize.
Policy reforms can help support workers’ efforts
President Joe Biden has taken a number of actions to support unionizing workers, leading him to be known as the “most pro-union president.” And the new data release may signal that his efforts are starting to have an impact. Union membership among federal government employees may increase in significant part because of efforts by the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing. Similarly, union membership in heavy construction may edge up as a result of President Biden’s historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy, which included strong labor requirements. Previously released data from the National Labor Relations Board also show that win rates in union formation elections have increased under President Biden’s appointees.
Yet much greater policy reforms are required than the Biden administration can achieve on its own. In particular, Congress needs to act. Most notably, it must pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, and other important reforms to ensure workers have strong rights, incentives to join unions, and a clear path to collective bargaining, such as those that promote sectoral bargaining.
There are many other examples that show the importance of policy and the power of reform:
- As seen in Figure 1, private sector union membership sharply increased between 1937 and 1947, after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the creation of World War II labor boards. But it stagnated and then fell into decline after the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, which weakened union rights by outlawing many types of strikes and permitting states to pass so-called right-to-work laws.
- Private sector union membership increased significantly during World War I, when public policy favored unions, but then fell when war policies ended.
- In Canada, where labor law resembles the pre-Taft-Hartley U.S. law and makes it easier to form unions, private sector density is roughly double that of the United States.
- In countries where laws are even more favorable to unions and collective bargaining—such as Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark—union membership is around 50 percent or above, and collective bargaining coverage is even higher.
- In the public sector, where laws are generally, but not always, more supportive than the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA, union membership is 33 percent, more than five times higher than it is in the private sector.
- In the states, public sector union membership is 66 percent in New York, a jurisdiction with favorable laws, but less than 4 percent in South Carolina, where most public sector collective bargaining is illegal.
- In Wisconsin, before Act 10 dramatically weakened union rights in 2011, public sector density stood at about 50 percent; but now, it is 19 percent.
- Historically, public sector union density hovered around 10 percent during the early 20th century, when collective bargaining in most parts of government was banned; however, once public sector workers gained rights in a number of states, union density shot up and has remained at about one-third.
Workers are demonstrating they want unions and collective bargaining, but so far, their efforts have not led to significant increases because the law works against workers. Continued worker action and new policy reforms are needed for union membership and collective bargaining to significantly increase.