Organized labor has long been a backbone of the U.S. economy, ensuring that workers receive fair pay and have a strong voice at work and in democracy. But data released today from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that just 10.3 percent of Americans belonged to a union in 2019, continuing a decadeslong decline. It is notable and troubling that even with the economy expanding for the last 10 years and union approval near a 50-year high, union membership continues to drop and remains near record lows.
The steady decrease in union participation reflects a number of changes in the economy, including the decline in manufacturing and a shift toward the service industry. But most important has been the public policy environment that allows employers to engage in aggressive anti-union activities and otherwise hinders workers from joining unions, such as through the rise of “right-to-work” laws. In recent years, high-profile organizing by workers across the country, including teachers, fast-food workers, and digital media journalists, has helped to call attention to the need for unions across sectors. In fact, research shows that roughly half of workers would like to join a union, but current public policy makes that unnecessarily difficult.
The United States has been in an economic expansion since 2009. Now, with the labor market tightening and workers’ bargaining power relative to employers’ increasing, one might expect union density to rise. Instead, the new BLS data show that union density never recovered to pre-recessionary levels but rather has continued to fall across demographic groups and in the vast majority of states as well as in most industries and occupations, including the fastest-growing ones. In places such as Wisconsin and Michigan, public policy has further exacerbated those downward trends.
These patterns in union density are troubling. Unions are critical actors when it comes to ensuring good wages and benefits for workers, reducing economic inequality, and standing up to corporate power. They have been at the forefront of fights for higher minimum wages and expanded health care access. And research shows that they encourage democratic participation, particularly in lower-income communities and among people of color, and represent the interests of ordinary citizens in behind-the-scenes political processes.
The data make clear that public policy needs to stop discouraging unionization and instead support unions and encourage collective bargaining. Here are three takeaways from today’s data release that highlight the need for such reforms.
1. Union density has fallen across demographic groups
Union density fell across every racial and ethnic group from 2009 to 2019. (see Figure 1) Most groups saw union density fall between 1 percentage point and 3 percentage points, with Black and Asian workers experiencing the largest absolute and relative declines over that period, despite Asian workers having some of the lowest unionization rates to begin with. Black workers remain the most likely to be unionized compared with all other racial and ethnic groups. However, over the last year alone, union density among Black workers fell by 1.3 percentage points. Overall, union density was lowest among Asian men (8 percent) and Latina women (8.4 percent).
Unions are particularly important for workers of color; Black and Hispanic workers receive an even greater earnings boost from their membership than do white workers. Moreover, collective bargaining can help close wage gaps for both these groups.
2. Even in the fastest-growing occupations, rates of union membership are low and declining
In occupations that are growing quickly, there are a few reasons to think that union density might increase: Workers are often in high demand and thus should have greater power relative to their employers, and many fast-growing jobs often have low pay. Indeed, many of the jobs with the most projected employment growth—including those in food preparation; personal care and service; health care support; and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance—have low median earnings, at around $25,000 annually.
However, of the top 10 occupations with the most projected employment growth from 2018 to 2028, only one—registered nurses—has an occupational unionization rate* above 10 percent. (see Figure 2) Cooks; combined food preparation and service workers; and waiters and waitresses have some of the lowest unionization rates—just 3.5 percent in 2019—of any major occupation group and together are projected to add more than 1.1 million jobs over 10 years. Among personal care aids, projected to add nearly 900,000 jobs within the same time frame, union density is only slightly higher, around 5.7 percent. But even for these workers, unionization rates have fallen by more than one-quarter over the last decade. Janitors and cleaners, another fast-growing occupation, have also seen unionization rates fall by nearly 25 percent since 2009.
It is worth noting that in many of the major occupation groups that are growing quickly, fissured employment structures and nontraditional worksites make it increasingly difficult to engage in traditional forms of collective bargaining at the worksite. For that reason, an increasing number of states and localities are making efforts to reconfigure and expand bargaining at the sectoral level in order to cover all workers in the industry no matter how their work is structured. New York state, for example, raised the minimum wage for fast-food workers through a wage board in 2015, and Seattle created a board to negotiate standards specifically for domestic workers.
3. Public policy affects unionization rates
The vast majority—more than three-quarters—of states saw union density decrease since 2009, with density in most other states remaining stagnant over this decade, though still declining over a longer period. Yet, union density fell more quickly in certain states than in others. (see Figure 3)
Some of the largest drops occurred in states that implemented anti-union policies during that period. In Wisconsin—the state with the largest percentage-point drop—then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) passed the notorious Act 10 in 2011, slashing collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. As a result, union density in Wisconsin nearly halved from 2009 to 2019. In Michigan, right-to-work laws, which in 2012 banned mandatory membership or dues paying for all private and public sector workers aside from police and firefighters, also chipped away at union density. There, union density fell by more than 5 percentage points over the last 10 years. Still, some states—especially in the aftermath of the Janus v. AFSCME decision prohibiting unions from requiring public employees to pay fair-share fees—have taken positive steps to strengthen public sector unions. By enacting laws to modernize dues collection; facilitate communication between unions and workers; and recognize the role of unions in providing meaningful training and benefits, pro-worker policymakers can support public employees’ bargaining rights.
Today’s BLS numbers offer a snapshot of the state of American unions. They show that, despite strong headline economic numbers, workers’ power to bargain through unions continues to weaken. That dearth of power is reflected most clearly in sluggish post-recession wage growth.
So, what is the path forward for millions of American workers? Passing proposed congressional legislation, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, to address glaring flaws in the current system and ensure that all workers have the right to join a union is a critical first step. Bolder reforms that actively incentivize union membership are also critical to overcoming the inherent collective action problem that unions face. And in many industries, especially those where traditional worksite-by-worksite bargaining is particularly difficult, broad-based bargaining—which sets compensation standards for an entire sector, occupation, or region—offers a critical route to improving working conditions. Only through strengthened collective bargaining will American workers be able demand more from employers and leverage their greater power in the broader economy.
Malkie Wall is a research assistant for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. David Madland is a senior fellow and the senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the Action Fund.
* Authors’ note: BLS employment projections are based on detailed occupations. Since unionization numbers are not available for detailed occupations, the authors used unionization rates in the corresponding major occupation groups as a proxy. In reality, unionization rates in detailed occupations may vary slightly from those of the broader major occupation groups.