The Department of Labor annual survey of union density, released today, shows that unions have fallen to just 10.1 percent of the overall workforce, down from 10.3 percent last year. That’s the lowest-ever recorded level.
This follows a year in which the news coverage for unions was generally good. Organizing wins at Amazon facilities, Starbucks stores, and the video game industry was often reported as indicating that unions were growing again and that collective bargaining appealed to a new generation of workers.
The reality was that, while the number of unionized workers increased by 273,000 in 2022, that growth was a mere fraction of the 5.3 million news jobs added to overall workforce. The total number of unionized workers is now 14 million, down from 17.7 million in 1983, the first year that the Labor Department began tracking this data.
The typical union worker isn’t getting any younger either. Only 9 percent of workers aged 25-34 were members of unions in 2022, down from 9.4 percent the previous year. The age cohort with the strongest growth in union membership was people 65 and older, 9.1 percent of whom carry union cards, up from 8.7 percent the previous year. That’s not a strong base to build from.
Simply put, as the economy has grown, the union movement hasn’t grown along with it. As new industries have sprung up, unions have struggled to organize them. A key reason why the efforts to organize Amazon, Starbucks, and the video game industry have been so newsworthy is because they are so novel. These companies that haven’t seen serious organizing efforts previously.
The union movement’s stagnation is largely due to the fact that, for decades, most didn’t have to mount serious organizing efforts. Unions became so entrenched in certain areas that they could force any workers seeking a job to sign up thanks to “security clause” collective bargaining contracts. There isn’t, for example, an auto worker alive in Michigan who had an opportunity to vote on being represented by the United Auto Workers.
Unions mounted public relations pressure campaigns in recent years to get giants like Walmart to agree to unionizing all of their stores at once, but without a groundswell of support from actual workers, those campaigns largely fizzled out. The more recent union-led campaigns against Starbucks and Amazon are engaging in the harder work of organizing individual locations one by one. This approach has the virtue of letting unions get wins they can tout, even if the vast majority of locations have remained non-union. The effort have used “salts,”union operatives taking on jobs for the express purpose of organizing the business. That ground-level effort is now showing signs of stalling too.
What the union movement has yet to try is to radically rethink how it operates and organizes. It simply isn’t an enticing enough deal to most workers. Until it seriously tries to listen to those workers and find out what they want, it will continue to struggle.