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News from EPI Union membership levels increased in 2023 as the private sector saw gains and the public sector saw losses: Many more workers wanted to join a union, but couldn’t

In 2023, 16.2 million U.S. workers were represented by a union—an increase of 191,000 from 2022, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released today. Although more jobs were unionized, the share of workers represented by a union declined from 11.3% to 11.2% because unionization efforts were unable to keep pace with the strong job growth in the overall labor market. As a result of decades of attacks on the right to organize, the current unionization rate is well under half what it was roughly 45 years ago. 

These statistics don’t capture the number of workers who want to join unions—surveys show that tens of millions of nonunionized workers wanted to join unions but couldn’t. However, these numbers do illustrate a broken system that continues to thwart workers’ ability to form unions and secure a contract. For instance, employer refusals to follow labor law have so far blocked workers at over 370 newly unionized Starbucks stores from reaching a first contract after two years of organizing.

Other key data analyzed by EPI include:

  • There were gains in private-sector unionization, but the public sector experienced losses. In the private sector, the unionization level increased by more than a quarter million (261,000) as the unionization rate grew from 6.8% to 6.9%. In the public sector, the number of workers covered by a union contract dropped by 70,000 as the unionization rate fell from 36.8% to 36.0%.
  • Workers of color accounted for the entire increase in unionization levels in 2023. In particular, workers of color saw an increase of 309,000, while white non-Hispanic workers saw a decrease of 119,000. Black workers continued to have the highest unionization rates at 13.1%, compared with 11.1% for white workers, 10.0% for Hispanic workers, and 9.0% for Asian workers.
  • Younger workers are also driving the increase in unionization levels. Unionization among workers younger than 45 grew by 229,000 in 2023, while unionization declined by 38,000 among workers age 45 and over.
  • The gender gap in unionization is small, but it widened somewhat in 2023. With women disproportionately concentrated in public-sector unions, the increase in the gender gap in unionization is a predictable result of public-sector unionization declining while private-sector unionization grew. The unionization rate for men held steady at 11.6%, while the rate for women declined from 11.0% to 10.7%.

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 show that nearly half of nonunion workers (48%) would vote to unionize their workplace if they could. That means that more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union but couldn’t. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act provide crucial reforms at the federal level to strengthen rights for private- and public-sector workers.

At the state level, policymakers should ensure that all public-sector, domestic, and agricultural workers have full collective bargaining rights. And states with so-called “right-to-work” laws should follow Michigan’s lead in repealing these anti-union laws.

“Workers want unions, but a broken system is undermining their efforts to organize at every turn,” said Heidi Shierholz, EPI president. “Decades of efforts to block access to unions have taken a heavy toll on workers’ rights. Employers have exploited weaknesses in U.S. labor law, and federal and state policymakers have failed to prevent this from happening.”

Previous EPI research has shown why it’s not surprising that workers want unions. Unionized workers have higher pay and better benefits, on average, than nonunionized workers. Unions also help close racial and ethnic wage gaps and improve workplace safety and health. This all points to the fact that dismantling existing barriers to union organizing and collective bargaining is crucial to generating a more prosperous, equitable economy.