Tens of millions more wanted to join a union, but couldn’t
What this report finds: Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Labor Relations Board show an uptick in union organizing activity in 2022. There is further evidence that many more workers would like to form a union but face barriers to doing so.
Why it matters: It’s not surprising that workers want to unionize. The advantages of unionization are well-documented. Unionized workers have higher pay and better benefits, on average, than nonunionized workers. Unions help close racial/ethnic wage gaps and also improve the health and safety of workplaces.
What can be done about it: One crucial way we can promote a more prosperous, equitable economy is to dismantle existing barriers to union organizing and collective bargaining. It is urgent that policymakers enact reforms at the federal and state levels to protect and support workers’ right to unionize.
Summary of findings
We analyzed recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB 2022) and found the following:
Overall unionization levels and rates
- In 2022, more than 16 million workers in the United States were represented by a union—an increase of 200,000 from 2021.
- At the same time, the share of workers represented by a uniondeclined from 11.6% to 11.3%.
- How is it possible that unionization levels increased but unionization rates decreased in 2022? The answer is straightforward: More jobs were unionized, but nonunion jobs were added at a faster rate.
Unionization by race and gender
- The entire increase in unionization in 2022 was among workers of color—workers of color saw an increase of 231,000, while white workers saw a decrease of 31,000. Of all major racial and ethnic groups, Black workers continue to have the highest unionization rates, at 12.8%. This compares with 11.2% for white workers, 10.0% for Latinx workers, and 9.2% for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers.
- The gender gap in unionization is small—0.6 percentage points—and held steady in 2022. The unionization rate for men is 11.6% and the unionization rate for women is 11.0%.
- The states with the largest increases in the number of workers represented by unions in 2022 were Alabama (40,000), Maryland (40,000), Ohio (52,000), Texas (72,000), and California (99,000).
Union activity and interest
- Between October 2021 and September 2022, the National Labor Relations Board saw a 53% increase in union election petitions, the highest single-year increase since fiscal year 2016.
- Evidence suggests that in 2022 more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union, but couldn’t.
The fact that tens of millions of workers want to join a union and can’t is a glaring testament to how broken U.S. labor law is. It is urgent that Congress pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act. State legislatures must also take available measures to boost unionization and collective bargaining.
Defining terms: Union membership versus union representation
If a workplace is unionized, all workers in the bargaining unit get the benefits of being represented by the union, even if they are not union members. Thus, the share of workers represented by a union is somewhat higher than the share of workers who are members of a union.
In 2022, the share of workers represented by a union was 11.3%, while the share of workers who were union members was 10.1%. Because all workers in a bargaining unit get the benefit of being represented by the union, union representation is the more relevant statistic when considering the impact of unionization on labor market outcomes. Therefore, we focus on union representation, rather than union membership, in our analyses.
In this report, the terms “unionization rate” and “union coverage rate” are shorthand for the union representation rate. Also note that, because the government data on unionization exclude self-employed workers, the term “workforce” in this report refers to wage and salary workers.
Building worker power
Workers have two potential sources of leverage with respect to their employers: (1) the implicit threat that they could quit and take a job elsewhere, and (2) the presence of a union that can represent their interests via collective bargaining. Both sources of leverage got a boost in 2022.
First, with job openings at record highs, workers experienced a surge in leverage as employers sought to retain employees. Second, 2022 saw a reenergized labor movement. Public support for unions came in at a more-than-50-year high (McCarthy 2022). And unions made advances—against enormous odds—at companies like Starbucks and Amazon. In 2022, 200,000 more workers were represented by a union than in 2021.
However, the first source of leverage—record-high job openings rates—will not last forever. It is, in fact, already abating, with the latest data showing that job openings are now 12% below their March 2022 peak.1 As the hot labor market of the recent period recedes,2 so too will the increase in worker power that came from workers’ increased ability to quit and take another job. To sustain the increased worker power of the last year, it is crucial that workers be able to join unions.
The 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics data on unionization
In 2022, more than 16 million workers in the United States were represented by a union—an increase of 200,000 from 2021. That included an increase of 112,000 in the private sector and an increase of 88,000 in the public sector. The biggest increases were in transportation and warehousing (+46,000), arts, entertainment, and recreation (+62,000), durable goods manufacturing (+76,000), and state government (+99,000).
While unionization levels increased, the share of workers represented by a union declined from 11.6% to 11.3% in 2022, with declines in both the private sector (from 7.0% to 6.8%) and the public sector (from 37.6% to 36.8%). How is it possible that unionization levels increased but unionization rates decreased? The answer is straightforward: More jobs were unionized, but nonunion jobs were added at a faster rate. Between 2021 and 2022, 5.3 million wage and salary jobs were added in one of the strongest years of job growth we’ve seen in four decades.3 Though unionization increased, it was unable to keep pace with the flood of new jobs.
Industries with sizable declines in unionization rates include local government (from 43.9% to 42.7%), construction (from 13.6% to 12.4%), real estate and rental and leasing (from 6.5% to 4.5%), and transportation and warehousing (where the number of workers represented by a union grew by 46,000, as noted above, but the unionization rate declined from 16.1% to 15.5%). Industries with sizable increases in unionization rates include durable goods manufacturing (from 8.3% to 8.9%), arts, entertainment, and recreation (from 5.5% to 7.6%), and agriculture and related industries (from 3.1% to 4.3%).
The entire increase in unionization in 2022 occurred among workers of color. Workers of color saw an increase of 231,000 while white workers saw a decrease of 31,000. The number of Black workers represented by a union increased by 142,000, Latinx workers by 101,000, and AAPI workers by 64,000.4 Of all major racial and ethnic groups, Black workers continued to have the highest unionization rates in 2022, at 12.8%. This compares with 11.2% for white workers, 10.0% for Latinx workers, and 9.2% for Asian American and Pacific Islander workers.
The numbers of men and women represented by a union increased by 135,000 and 65,000, respectively, in 2022. The gender gap in unionization is small—0.6 percentage points—and held steady in 2022. The unionization rate for men is 11.6%, while the unionization rate for women is 11.0%.
Overall unionization rates mask large differences across states. In 2022, the states with the largest shares of workers represented by unions were Hawaii (23.4%), New York (22.1%), Washington (19.1%), Rhode Island (17.7%), and California (17.6%). The states with the smallest shares of workers represented by unions were South Carolina (2.0%), North Carolina (3.9%), South Dakota (4.2%), Virginia (4.5%) and Texas (5.1%). The states with the largest increases in the number of workers represented by unions in 2022 were Alabama (40,000), Maryland (40,000), Ohio (52,000), Texas (72,000), and California (99,000).
Workers show growing interest in joining unions
The share of nonunion workers who would like to have a union at their workplace is far higher than the share who actually have union representation. Survey data from 2017 show that nearly half of nonunion workers (48%) would vote to unionize their workplace if they could. The 2017 figure is up substantially from previous decades; in 1977 and 1995, only about one-third (32–33%) of nonunion, nonmanagerial workers said they would vote to unionize if they could (Kochan et al. 2018; EPI 2021).
While 2017 is the most recent year the survey of nonunion workers was conducted, we presume that the share of nonunion workers who would like to unionize was at least 48% in 2022, if not higher. Assuming that to be true, that means that more than 60 million workers in 2022 wanted to join a union, but couldn’t.
The assumption that the share of nonunion workers who would like to be in a union did not drop between 2017 and 2022 is a reasonable assumption given that a more recent survey indicates that public approval of unions grew from 61% to a more-than-50-year high of 71% between 2017 and 2022 (McCarthy 2022). (Note that the share of the public who approve of unions is related to—but not the same measure as—the share of nonunionized workers who would join a union if they could.)
Note that the large increase in the share of workers expressing a desire for unionization over the last four decades has occurred at the same time the share of workers represented by a union has declined. Today’s 11.3% unionization rate is well under half of what it was roughly 40 years ago (Mishel, Rhinehart, and Windham 2020). But despite the decline in union representation and the growing gap between the demand for and the availability of union representation, workers continued to exercise their right to form unions and bargain collectively in 2022. Union activity last year included organizing drives within notable companies such as Starbucks (Lucas 2022), Amazon (Velasquez and Irizarry Aponte 2022), Trader Joe’s (Scheiber 2022), and Chipotle (Kaori Gurley 2022). Graduate students (Johnston 2022) and workers at an electric vehicle plant (Isidore 2022) also sought to organize in 2022. Workers also engaged in numerous strikes. Student workers at Columbia University (Wong 2022) and workers at the San Francisco Airport (de Guzman 2022) succeeded in obtaining higher pay and better health benefits after going on strike. These examples demonstrate the critical leverage collective action provides to workers when negotiating for better pay and working conditions.
It’s worth noting that the current trend of increasing popularity of unions is still unfolding. It takes time to organize and win union elections, and not all of the union activity of the last year will have yet translated into increased union membership.
Why do workers want unions?
When workers are able to come together, form a union, and collectively bargain, their wages, benefits, and working conditions improve. For example, a worker covered by a union contract earns 10.2% more in wages on average than a peer with similar education, occupation, and experience in a nonunionized workplace in the same sector (Banerjee et al. 2021).
Further, unions raise wages for women and reduce racial/ethnic wage gaps. Hourly wages for women represented by a union are 4.7% higher on average than for nonunionized women with comparable characteristics. Black workers represented by a union are paid 13.1% more than their nonunionized Black peers, and Hispanic workers represented by a union are paid 18.8% more than their nonunionized Hispanic peers (Banerjee et al. 2021). Research by Farber et al. (2021) confirms that unions have historically helped, and continue to help, close wage gaps for Black and Hispanic workers (which also means that the decline of unionization over the last four decades has contributed to the increase in the Black–white wage gap over that period).
Unions also provide workers with better benefits. For example, union workers are far more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance: More than nine in 10 workers covered by a union contract (95%) have access to employer-sponsored health benefits, compared with just 69% of nonunion workers (BLS 2022a). Further, union employers contribute more to their employee’s health care benefits. Union workers also have greater access to paid sick days: More than nine in 10 workers—92%—covered by a union contract have access to paid sick days, compared with 77% of nonunion workers (BLS 2022b).
Unions also improve the health and safety of workplaces by providing health insurance and paid sick time, requiring safety equipment, and empowering workers to report unsafe conditions without fear of retaliation (Zoorob 2018; Amick et al. 2015). So-called right-to-work laws—which weaken unions by allowing workers to receive union benefits without paying their share of union representation costs—has been associated with a roughly 14% increase in the rate of occupational fatalities (Zoorob 2018).
The benefits of unionization go beyond unionized workplaces. When local economies have greater shares of union workers, nonunion workers benefit, because unions effectively set broader standards—including higher wages—which nonunion employers must meet to attract and retain the workers they need (Rosenfeld, Denice, and Laird 2016; Mishel 2021b). Further, high unionization rates are consistently associated with a much broader set of positive spillover effects across multiple dimensions. These positive outcomes include higher state and local minimum wages, better health benefits, easier access to unemployment insurance, access to paid sick leave, access to paid family and medical leave, and unrestricted voting opportunities (Banerjee et al. 2021). This all points to the fact that one of the most important things that could be done to generate a more prosperous, equitable economy is to dismantle existing barriers to union organizing and collective bargaining (McNicholas et al. 2019; Oliver 2021; Mishel 2021a).
NLRB elections are on the rise
The NLRB is a small independent agency tasked with administering the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees most private-sector employees the right to form unions and collectively bargain. The NLRB is responsible for conducting union elections to determine if workers wish to be represented by a union.
During fiscal year 2022, the NLRB saw a 53% increase in union election petitions. This is the highest number of union election petitions filed since fiscal year 2016 (NLRB 2022). Further, workers are increasingly winning these elections: The rate at which workers are winning NLRB union elections has increased steadily since 2020. As of October 2022, the win rate of NLRB-conducted union elections was 71.4% (Glass 2022). As described in the next section, the disconnect between the rise in union elections and decline in unionization rates is the result of labor laws that allow employers to fiercely oppose workers’ organizing efforts.
Obstacles to unionization
A key contributor to the decline of unions in recent decades is fierce corporate opposition to union organizing. It is now standard, when workers seek to organize, for employers to hire union avoidance consultants to coordinate intense anti-union campaigns. An EPI analysis concluded that private-sector employers spend nearly $340 million per year hiring union avoidance advisers to help them prevent employees from organizing (McNicholas et al. 2019). And though the National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for private-sector employers to intimidate, coerce, or fire workers in retaliation for participating in union-organizing campaigns, the penalties are grossly insufficient to provide a meaningful disincentive for such behavior (Oliver 2021).
The persistence of illegal retaliation is evident in a review of federal records: Employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns. One out of five union election campaigns involve a charge that a worker was illegally fired for union activity (McNicholas et al. 2019). And these data do not include illegal activity that was never brought before the NLRB, nor the veiled threats and other legal ways that employers can thwart unionizing efforts thanks to weak labor laws (Lafer and Loustaunau 2020).
What can policymakers do to protect workers’ rights?
Despite blatant attacks on union organizing, policymakers have neglected to update labor law to ensure that workers have a meaningful right to union representation in their workplace. The consequences are clear in the data. While unionization levels increased in 2022, the share of workers in a union decreased despite a substantial amount of union activity and extremely high union popularity, and that drop is part of a decades-long decline in unionization. The decline is occurring not because workers don’t want unions, but because our current system of labor law is broken.
Recent worker organizing efforts send a clear message that workers want unions. We must therefore adopt policies that make it easier for workers to form unions.
At the federal level, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act provides a comprehensive set of reforms that would strengthen private-sector workers’ right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act guarantees public-sector workers the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.
There is also room for improvement at the state level. Currently, more than half of U.S. states lack comprehensive collective bargaining laws for state and local public-sector workers. In addition, millions of agricultural and domestic workers are excluded from collective bargaining laws except in states that have passed legislation to specifically cover them (McNicholas et al. 2020).
To generate an economy that works for everyone, the union revitalization of the recent period must be sustained and increased. Policy changes at the federal and state levels are crucial to restoring a fair balance of power between workers and employers. The Biden administration, Congress, and state legislatures must institute policies that promote the right to union representation and collective bargaining.
2. It’s important to note that if a recession occurs in the near term, it will represent an enormous policy failure. Recent data have been encouraging that bringing inflation under control without causing a recession is possible if policymakers are patient. If the Fed instead ignores the signs of disinflation coming down the pipeline and continues rapid interest rate hikes, a recession is likely. If this happens, it will not have been an inevitable casualty in a necessary fight against inflation—it will have been an overreaction and a mistake. See Bivens 2022.
3. The employment change here refers to the change in employment of wage and salary workers in the Current Population Survey, which is found in the release of the union membership numbers.
4. Note that in this analysis, Latinx workers can be of any race, so these categories overlap. For example, white Latinx workers are counted as both white and Latinx, and Black Latinx workers are counted as both Black and Latinx.
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