Jan 30, 2024 - Economy

Private sector unionization rates actually grew in 2023

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

The share of workers represented by a labor union ticked up in the private sector in 2023, even though overall union membership fell to a new low.

Why it matters: Public sector unions — representing workers in federal, state and local government — drove the decline in the overall rate.

  • Meanwhile, a resurgent labor movement in the private sector led to an increase in union representation there.

State of play: The number of federal, state and local government employees covered by a union contract fell by 70,000 workers in 2023; it rose slightly — by 261,000 — for private sector employees, according to BLS data out last week.

  • For the private sector, "it was a 'swimming upstream' situation," says Heidi Shierholz, president of the progressive Economic Policy Institute, "a resurgence of interest in unions that was so strong it was able to overcome how enormously stacked private sector labor law is against organizing."

Zoom out: Overall, the rate at which new workers join unions is far lower than the rate at which the economy has added new workers.

  • Plus: High-profile organizing efforts like those at Starbucks and Amazon haven't resulted in labor contracts — as those companies aggressively push back — and thus aren't counted in the BLS tallies.

Zoom in: Public sector unionization rates started falling after the financial crisis led to sharp cutbacks in state and local hiring. Employment levels were only beginning to recover when COVID struck, setting back the whole process.

  • Starting in 2010, five states passed so-called right-to-work laws that discourage union membership.
  • Those states saw a 3.8% decline in union membership between 2010 and 2023, according to research from EPI. That compares with a 2% decrease in states without those laws.

What to watch: Michigan repealed its 2012 right-to-work law in 2023. It'll be interesting to see if the state's union membership rate increases in the coming years.

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