Record Low Union Membership Shows Need for Ambitious Reform

January 23, 2024

Despite signs of a labor movement resurgence throughout 2023, union density continued to hover at a historic low of 10 percent. This is not entirely surprising. Despite another year of elevated election filings at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the current US labor regime makes it difficult to meaningfully scale union organizing, and workers must overcome significant hurdles to secure union recognition and first contracts. In the public sector, neither the right to organize nor the right to collectively bargain is guaranteed at the federal level. Meanwhile, many workers in the private sector must overcome increasingly fierce corporate opposition to unions.

In 2023, declines in union membership were concentrated in the public sector. While union membership density in the private sector stayed flat at 6 percent, membership density in the public sector dropped 0.6 percentage points to 32.5 percent, corresponding to a loss of 52,000 union workers. This downturn was driven by union membership losses in state and local government, where density fell by 1.3 percentage points and 0.4 percentage points, respectively, and the number of union workers fell by 20,000 and 92,000 workers, respectively. This took place alongside an increase in union membership among federal workers, of 0.7 percentage points and 60,000 workers, respectively.

On a more positive note, the union membership rate for disabled workers increased by nearly half a percentage point in 2023, though it still lags behind the rate for non-disabled workers (Figure 1). The number of disabled union members was also higher in 2023 than in any other year on record. The increase in the number of disabled union members coincided with growth in the overall number of disabled workers and in the number of disabled people of working age. However, an increase in disabled union membership is still a hopeful sign, given the tangible benefits of union membership for workers with disabilities.

Figure 1

For additional perspective, it is helpful to compare the situation of the labor movement in the United States with their counterparts in Canada. Canadian workers remain nearly three times as likely to be union members as US workers (Figure 2). Canadian union density has been more stable than US union density over the last two decades. Canada also has more pro-worker policies and a more robust enforcement regime than the US.

Figure 2

For the labor movement to truly (re)gain ground, policymakers must enact a broad suite of labor law reforms, including but not limited to the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act. They must also draft additional legislation to codify “card check” recognition and to ensure that enforcement agents like the NLRB have the resources they need. Players within the US labor movement must also set more ambitious organizing goals to reverse the steady decline in density.

The author would like to thank John Schmitt for his helpful feedback and Emma Curchin and Brandon Novick for research assistance.

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