January 19, 2023
- The union membership rate — the percentage of wage and salary workers who are union members—dropped between 2021 and 2022, while the number of union members increased.
- There are encouraging signs for the labor movement in other data — namely high union approval ratings and increased filings for union elections — but legal and ideological barriers to unionization mean that rebuilding the labor movement in the US will require sustained and aggressive action.
- Organized labor must capitalize on enthusiasm among younger workers, including those ages 25 to 34 — the only age group whose union membership share increased between 2019 and 2022.
- Canada provides a useful comparative perspective on union membership trends in the US. Canadian workers are nearly three times as likely to be union members as US workers, and Canadian union membership has been relatively stable over the last several decades.
- Pro-worker policy reforms are desperately needed to aid workers who are organizing under, and bargaining with, hostile employers.
The number of union members grew from just over 14 million in 2021 to nearly 14.3 million in 2022, but the overall union membership share of employees dropped 0.2 percentage points to 10.1 percent. This is the lowest membership share level on record, a title previously shared by 2019 and 2021 (both 10.3 percent). The number of union members remains short of its 2019 level, when there were almost 14.6 million union members.
The share of workers represented by unions — either as members or as non-members covered by union contracts — fell by 0.3 percentage points to 11.3 percent. The number of represented workers grew from around 15.8 million in 2021 to around 16 million in 2022. This number remains below its 2019 level as well, when there were slightly less than 16.4 million workers covered by unions.
The competitive labor market, though less tight than it was last year, continues to benefit job seekers. While this may reduce the risks of organizing a union, it also means that it is easier for workers to find a different job altogether if they are unsatisfied with their current work situation, and more likely that employers are taking proactive steps to retain employees. And while union approval ratings are at their highest level since 1965, the majority (58 percent) of nonunion workers say they are “not interested at all” in joining a union. Though the thinking behind this disparity is unclear from the polling data, it is likely due in part to concerns about employer retaliation and limited understanding of what unions can offer workers in a variety of industries and occupations. That said, 42 percent of the nonunion workers surveyed were somewhere between slightly open to and extremely interested in joining a union, indicating substantial opportunity for membership growth.
It is also worth noting that the survey the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses to measure union membership and coverage has some limitations. Workers whose union elections have yet to take place, or whose election results are being challenged by their employer, may not show up in this data. Those who have declined to join the union in workplaces where the union has won an election but has yet to sign a collective bargaining agreement with the employer — a workplace description that applies to many unionized Starbucks, for example — will also not be counted as having union “coverage”, even though they do enjoy some benefits of union representation. These nuances mean that these data may be missing part of the unionization story. Union election data helps fill part of the gap. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees most private sector union elections in the US, reported in October that filings were up 53 percent in fiscal year 2022 (October 1, 2021 to September 31, 2022) compared to the prior fiscal year.
The number of union members increased in both the public and the private sectors, but both remained short of their 2019 levels. The union membership share fell more in the public sector than in the private sector (Figure 1). Public sector union membership dropped 0.8 percentage points to 33.1 percent, while private sector union membership stayed almost flat, declining 0.1 percentage points to 6 percent. Both are short of their 2019 levels, by 0.5 percentage points and 0.2 percentage points, respectively.
Notable Trends by Demographic Group
The union membership rate among 16-to-24-year old workers increased by 0.2 percentage points, returning in 2022 to its 2019 level of 4.4 percent (Figure 2). Union membership also increased among workers age 65 and older—by 0.4 percentage points to 9.1 percent. This is half a percentage point below that group’s 2019 level.
Union membership among 25-to-34-year old workers dropped 0.4 percentage points to 9 percent, but is still 0.2 percentage points above that group’s 2019 level. Younger workers enjoy large union wage and benefit premiums and have been hit by financial crises at key points in their working lives, so growth in union density is especially important for these age groups. Union enthusiasm is slightly higher among those ages 18 to 34 than it is overall, though it is unclear how many nonunion workers in this age range would be interested in joining a labor union themselves.
The share of union members stayed nearly flat for men and decreased slightly for women (Figure 3). The union membership rate for men declined by 0.1 percentage points to 10.5 percent, while the union membership rate for women fell 0.3 percentage points to 9.6 percent. Both are slightly short of their 2019 levels, though women have a longer way to go to regain their pre-pandemic membership rate. The gender gap in union membership grew for the second year in a row, and now stands at 0.9 percentage points.
CEPR’s research has found that unions play an important role in helping Black workers and Hispanic workers narrow wage and benefit gaps with white workers. The union membership rate stayed nearly flat for both Hispanic and Black workers in 2022, declining by 0.1 percentage points each to 11.4 percent for the former and 8.9 percent for the latter (Figure 4). The union share for Black workers in 2022 exceeded the share in 2019, while the union share for Hispanic workers was the same as it was in 2019. Black workers continue to have the highest union density among racial/ethnic groups.
Membership among white workers dropped 0.3 percentage points to 10.4 percent, while membership among Asian and Pacific Islander workers increased 0.6 percentage points to 8.8 percent. White workers and Asian and Pacific Islander workers are respectively 0.3 percentage points and 0.5 percentage points short of their 2019 membership levels. Union membership among American Indian/Native American (AI/AN) and other workers not included in the four racial and ethnic categories above, declined by 0.4 percentage points to 8.1 percent. (Unfortunately, the number of AI/AN workers in this survey data is too small to produce reliable estimates of union membership. For more on how CEPR defines racial/ethnic groups, see the Methodological Notes at the end of this article).
Immigrants to the United States face additional hurdles to unionization compared to workers with US citizenship. Work visas are often tied to continued employment with a specific employer or within a specific industry, making retaliation for organizing more consequential than it would be for someone with citizenship. Undocumented workers face even greater challenges, as unscrupulous employers can weaponize their immigration status. Though still sizable, the citizenship gap in union membership rates narrowed slightly in 2022 (Figure 5). The union membership rate for US citizens fell 0.3 percentage points to 11.8 percent in 2022, while the union membership rate for noncitizens increased by 0.2 percentage points to 6.4 percent. Both groups had lower union membership rates in 2022 than in 2019. It is unclear to what extent this may be due to composition changes in the US immigrant population.
Unions are especially beneficial for disabled people, both as a source of additional employer accountability and in the form of particularly sizable union wage premiums. Workers with disabilities have traditionally had union membership rates that are comparable to or even exceed those of their nondisabled colleagues (Figure 6). While the union membership rates for workers with and without disabilities — 9.2 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively — were still within less than a percentage point of one another in 2022, the gap between them was wider than it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019. Among workers with disabilities, the union membership rate fell 0.7 percentage points between 2021 and 2022, and 0.5 percentage points between 2019 and 2022. For workers without disabilities, the rate fell by 0.2 percentage points both between 2021 and 2022 and between 2019 and 2022. It is unclear to what extent this reflects changes in the composition of disabled workers, whose ranks have swelled during the pandemic.
Notable Trends by industry and Occupation
Union membership in agriculture and related industries rose to 3.9 percent in 2022, up 1 percentage point from 2021 and 2.2 percentage points from 2019. Union membership in private sector farming, fishing, and forestry occupations likewise grew to 3.6 percent, up 0.3 percentage points from 2021 and 1.8 percentage points from 2019. Union membership in agriculture remains far below the private sector average, but this growth — which would have taken place prior to the success of efforts like the one in California in late 2022 — will hopefully continue under more union-friendly policies for farm workers, who stand to benefit immensely from the protections and compensation increases that typically accompany union representation.
The union membership rate in accommodation and food services rose to 2 percent in 2022, up 0.3 percentage points from 2021 and just 0.1 percentage points short of the 2019 level. The same dynamic held true for the number of union members in this industry, which in 2022 increased to just under 200,000. Union membership in private sector food preparation and serving related occupations increased to 2.8 percent in 2022, up 0.4 percentage points from 2021 and 0.1 percentage points compared to 2019.
Union membership in transportation and warehousing fell to 14.5 percent in 2022, down 0.2 percentage points from 2021 and 1.6 percentage points below what it was in 2019. However, the number of union members in this industry increased to 958,000, which exceeds the number from 2021 and from 2019. The plight of some of these workers was recently thrust into the spotlight, when lawmakers moved to impose a contract on railroad workers that left the workers without paid sick leave, an issue over which the workers were otherwise prepared to strike.
Union membership in health care and social assistance industries stayed flat at 6.6 percent, which is still 0.2 percentage points below the 2019 level. The number of union members in this industry, just over 1.2 million in 2022, more or less followed the same pattern. Union membership in private sector healthcare support occupations increased 0.3 percentage points to 5.9 percent in 2022, but is still 0.3 percentage points short of its 2019 level. The membership rate for healthcare practitioner and technical occupations was down 0.5 percentage points to 8.8 percent in the private sector and down 0.5 percentage points to 29.7 percent in the public sector. Both remain below their 2019 rates.
In the public sector, the union membership rate increased by 0.3 percentage points to 29.9 percent in state government, but fell by 0.5 percentage points to 24.4 percent in federal government and by 1.4 percentage points to 38.8 percent in local government. The number of union members increased in federal and state government but fell in local government.
Over half of unionized state government employees work in professional and related occupations, within which more than half work in education, training, and library occupations. However, the majority of unionized public sector workers in education, training, and library occupations work for local governments. The union membership share for public sector education, training, and library occupations was down 0.7 percentage points to 46 percent, though this is still 0.3 percentage points above the 2019 level. The number of public sector union members in these occupations increased to almost 2.6 million workers, but this is still less than it was in 2019.
With a union membership rate of 48.6 percent, protective service occupations have higher union density in the public sector than any other major occupation group. Union membership in public sector protective service occupations grew by 1.8 percentage points and 75,000 workers between 2021 and 2022. Both the membership rate and the number of union members in public sector protective occupations exceeded 2019 levels.
Notable Trends by State
Hawaii had the highest union membership rate overall at 21.9 percent, followed by New York at 20.7 percent (FIgure 7). Hawaii and New York also had the highest private sector union membership rates, at 13.3 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively. South Carolina had the lowest overall union membership rate at 1.7 percent, followed by North Carolina at 2.8 percent. South Carolina also had the lowest private sector union membership rate at 1.3 percent.
In the public sector, New York had the highest union membership rate at 65.9 percent, followed by Rhode Island at 61 percent and then Connecticut at 58.2 percent (Figure 8). South Carolina had the lowest union membership rate in the public sector at 3.8 percent, and substantially lagged even the state with the next lowest rate (Arkansas at 8.1 percent).
There are nine states in which the majority of public sector employees were union members in 2022: New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania. By contrast, in thirty states, less than a third of public sector workers were union members, and in four states, less than 10 percent of public sector workers were union members. All four of these states are in the south; they include Virginia and North Carolina along with Arkansas and South Carolina.
Organizations like the Union of Southern Service Workers have recently emerged to tackle comparatively low unionization rates in the southern US. Their work will be essential in expanding the union advantage to workers in states where organized labor has traditionally struggled to gain a foothold.
Canada Continues to Have Higher and More Stable Union Membership Rates than the US
Canada provides a useful comparative perspective on union membership trends in the US. As Figure 9 shows, 28.4 percent of Canadian workers were union members in 2022, nearly triple the US rate. While the US union membership rate has declined from 14.1 percent in 1997 to 10.1 percent in 2022, the Canadian rate has remained relatively stable with some modest year-to-year changes over the same period. In the Canadian province with the lowest union membership rate, Alberta (22.3 percent in 2022), workers are twice as likely to be union members as workers in the US. Albertan workers are even somewhat more likely to be union members than workers in any US state. Among the provinces, union membership rates are highest in Newfoundland and Labrador (38.5 percent), followed by Quebec (35.7 percent), and then the prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan (32.7 and 32.2 percent respectively). The disparity between Canada and the United States is largely driven by policy decisions. Compared to Canada, policymakers in the US (including unelected policymakers, like Supreme Court justices) have made it easier for US employers to block unionization efforts and undermine collective bargaining power.
Pro-worker legislation is desperately needed to aid workers who are organizing under and bargaining with hostile employers. Initiatives like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act that remove obstacles to organizing and introduce additional accountability for employers that infringe on workers’ rights must be prioritized by the new Congress. Such legislation will help the labor movement turn high favorability ratings into an expanded rank-and-file.
Along similar lines, public sector workers must be guaranteed both the right to join a union and the right to bargain collectively. While worker organizing has still paid off even in states where one or both of these activities are not permitted, public sector unions, and thus public sector workers, would benefit immensely from legislation like the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, a version of which was revived in 2021. This legislation would enshrine both joining a union and collective bargaining as fundamental rights for all workers, including those in the public sector.
The NLRB must also be adequately funded to fulfill its mission. While Congress recently allocated enough to keep the agency from having to furlough staff, the NLRB still does not have what it needs to keep up with its current workload, much less the increased workload that the labor movement undoubtedly hopes to see. While it is remarkable what the NLRB has been able to achieve despite limited resources, chronic underfunding puts unnecessary strain on staff and undermines their ability to protect America’s workers.
Finally, rebuilding the labor movement will require sustained, aggressive action from organized labor and its advocates. This necessitates leadership that will militantly defend workers’ interests while building the broad, media-savvy coalition required to do so from a position of strength. The successful campaign by United Farm Workers to convince vineyard-owning California governor Gavin Newsom to sign AB 2183 in September is an example the rest of the movement should look to emulate.
The author thanks Shawn Fremstad, Dean Baker, Eileen Appelbaum, Emma Curchin, Dan Beeton, and Victoria Coan for their helpful feedback and editorial assistance.
Union membership rate, unionization rate, union membership share, and union density all refer to the percentage of wage and salary employees who were union members in a given year.
When discussed in the text, numbers and shares for sector, age, sex, industry, and state (overall) are based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Numbers and shares for race/ethnicity, US citizenship, disability status, public and private sector occupations, and state public and private sectors are based on the author’s analysis of data from the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group. Union approval data are from Gallup. Data sources for individual figures are as noted.
Race/ethnicity categories are mutually exclusive and consistent over time. White includes those who identified exclusively as non-Hispanic white. Black encompasses non-Hispanics who identified as Black, including those who also identified as other races. Hispanic includes all respondents who indicated they were Hispanic or Latino, regardless of how else they identified. Asian refers to non-Hispanic Asians, Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders who did not also identify as Black. Other comprises those who identified as American Indians or Alaskan natives and who did not also identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander, as well as those who identified exclusively as non-White, non-Black, and non-Asian races.
These estimates are presented without additional evaluation for statistical significance. Readers should take care, in particular, with state estimates for states with smaller populations.