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labor Union Membership Grew Last Year, but Only 10% of U.S. Workers Belong to a Union

The gains in union membership in 2023 were driven entirely by workers under the age of 45, says Heidi Shierholz, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

American Federation of Musicians Local 47

Amid a burst of enthusiasm and energy amid high-profile strikes, labor unions added 139,000 members last year.

But the overall numbers tell a different story.

Due to rapid growth in nonunion jobs in 2023, the share of U.S. workers who are union members actually fell slightly, according to new numbers from the Labor Department.

Just 10% of the U.S. workforce belonged to unions in 2023, down from 10.1% in 2022. That's the lowest in Labor Department records dating back to 1983. 

Younger workers drive gains in union membership

The gains in union membership in 2023 were driven entirely by workers under the age of 45, says Heidi Shierholz, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

"I think that does point to a shift that may be a more lasting shift... in interest and popularity of unions," says Shierholz.

Union membership has seen a steady decline over decades. In the 1950s, about a third of the private sector workforce was unionized, according to the White House. In 2023, only 6% of private sector workers belonged to unions.

While union membership remains far more common among public sector workers, Shierholz notes that public sector unions lost members in 2023, while unions in the private sector grew.

New union organizing faces fierce opposition

The United Auto Workers, fresh off wins at the bargaining table, is hoping to recover some of the steep losses in union auto jobs over the decades with organizing pushes at foreign-owned auto plants in the South and at Tesla in California. 

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It won't be easy. Already, the UAW says workers handing out union flyers and t-shirts have faced harassment, leading the union to file unfair labor practice charges with federal labor authorities.

Labor organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks illustrate how long and difficult a process unionizing can be. Since big union election wins in 2022, both campaigns have been mired in legal battles

Shierholz says weaknesses in labor law are responsible for the significant gap between the number of workers who are represented by unions and those who want to be represented by unions but aren't.

"That gap is labor law not truly protecting workers' right to organize," she says, noting that employers face little more than a slap on the wrist for violating that right.

Unions have broad public support

Unions do appear to be winning public sentiment. Support for labor unions remains near a 60-year high, according to Gallup, with 67% of respondents "approving" of labor unions in 2023.

Six in 10 respondents said they believe unions help rather than hurt the U.S. economy, a record high.

But while 17% of respondents told Gallup they're "highly interested" in joining a union, six in 10 said they are "not interested at all," perhaps contributing to the lack of growth in union membership.

Among workers who are already members of a union, appreciation for that membership is on the rise. In 2023, five in 10 rated their union membership as "extremely important," up from four in 10 the year before.

Gallup predicts that deeper commitment among union members combined with strong public support will likely strengthen unions for the foreseeable future.