Union membership dropped yet again in 2022 to the lowest rate on record, showing that workers still face an uphill battle in organizing
- The union membership rate fell in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Union membership has been mostly declining for decades, even though union workers tend to make more money.
More Americans flocked to join unions in 2022, even as union membership fell to its lowest rate on record.
The number of workers belonging to a union rose to 14.3 million in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual accounting of union membership. In 2021, 14.0 million workers belonged to a union. Despite this uptick from 2021 to 2022, the level is still low compared to the number of members decades ago.
At the same time, the union membership rate, which tracks the percentage of workers in a union, fell to 10.1% — the lowest rate on record, per BLS.
That dissonance between union members and membership rate came from the country's robust economic recovery, where, even as more workers joined unions, the number of jobs added far outpaced them.
Union membership has been steadily declining for decades. The union membership rate of 10.1% in 2022 was just half the 20.1% in 1983, the first year BLS compiled comparable data. A decade ago, in 2012, the rate was 11.3%.
At the same time, the number of workers represented by a union, even if they are not themselves members, edged up slightly to 16.0 million — although that percentage rate also fell from 11.6% to 11.3%.
While the increase in the number of union members shows a swell of interest in organizing, the even bigger increase in non-union jobs last year may show that barriers to organizing persist. Support for unions is at its highest since 1965, according to an August Gallup poll, with 71% of Americans approving of labor unions.
Being in a union continues to pay: Nonunion workers made just 85% of what union members made in 2022. Recent research out of Cornell University's ILR Review found that the union wage premium was $1.3 million for a worker who spent their whole career in a union. A career-long union worker without a college degree was actually on track to make more than a non-union worker with a college degree, the researchers found.
"If suddenly the United States lost the college premium that would be a disaster," Tom VanHeuvelen, a co-author of the report and professor at University of Minnesota Twin Cities, previously told Insider. "A lot of newspaper articles would be written about that. But it seems like we've lost something equivalent for America's working class."
Workers from Starbucks to REI to Trader Joe's to Wells Fargo are interested in unionizing, with many citing the need for better conditions and pay. Even so, the union membership rate for retail workers is just 4.3%, down from 4.4% in 2021.
The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute attributes the generational declines in unions to increasingly restrictive labor laws and employer practices intended to dissuade workers from unionizing.
Jennifer Abruzzo, the Biden administration's general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), wants to do away with captive audience meetings, an employer tactic where managers mandate employees sit through anti-union meetings, saying they are "the epitome of coercion."
"Workers don't feel that they can leave, even though they have the right to refrain from listening to speech — just as much as they have the right to listen to it — because of the very real fear of retaliation," Abruzzo previously told Insider.
But the latest data shows two truths about the labor market: More workers joined unions in 2022, but, with already low union rates, a booming economy is still adding jobs faster than they can unionize.
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