Workers of

The State of the ‘Labor’ Union

by Natalie Rose Goldberg


The American labor movement flourished in 2023. High-profile strikes by writers and actors against Hollywood brought the union power to the mainstream as pictures of celebrities holding picket signs flooded social media. President Biden made history as the first sitting president to ever appear on a picket line when he visited the United Auto Workers strike in Michigan in September. Successful negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters union led to wide-spread wage increases.

But one big win continues to elude labor: the need to translate its rising popularity into an increase in rank-and-file union membership, which has stagnated in recent decades. This number didn’t budge in 2023.

The latest annual union membership numbers released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the percentage of unionized workers across both the public and private sectors in 2023 remained at 10%. Union members increased by 191,000 to a total of 14.4 million workers, but the share of workers represented by a union — including those whose jobs are covered by a union contract even if they are not members — actually declined from 11.3% to 11.2% of the workforce.

According to Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-union think tank which focuses on policy for lower-income workers, this lack of progress in the numbers seem at odds with the growing prominence of unions on the labor landscape.

It’s not a lack of support from the public that’s holding unions back from making more progress in growing their ranks. Even before the big wins of 2023, polling conducted in recent years showed rising union popularity, with support at its highest level since 1965, according to 2022 data from Gallup.

Union polling has shown similarly positive results, with the AFL-CIO finding that the vast majority of registered voters in America are supportive of both unions and strikes — 71% of individuals polled approve of labor unions, and 75% are in support of workers going on strike.

But according to the Gallup polling, only one in six Americans live in a household with a union member, and its polling, as well as polling by others, shows that nonunion workers remain divided, about fifty-fifty, on interest in joining a union — Gallup’s 2022 polling showed the percentage of nonunion workers who were not interested in membership as high as 58%.

‘The Great Reset’

In 2023, it was a banner year for American workers who support the labor movement.

“I’ve used the term ‘The Great Reset’ to describe what’s happened in collective bargaining in 2023 with the big wage settlements, the threat of strikes, the use of the strike as a source of power,” says Thomas Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who has been studying the unionization trends for decades. He said the deals reached last year are “way above anything that has been achieved since the early 2000s. So it’s a big year in terms of achievements.”

In 2023, there were 451 strikes, according to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker, with successes for workers throughout various different sectors of the economy, from SAG-AFTRA and The Writers Guild of America in entertainment, to logistics, healthcare, and hotels and casinos workers across the country also striking successfully.

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