January 18, 2023
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will release its annual report on the prior year’s union membership and coverage on January 19, 2023. Based on CEPR’s initial tabulations using public use microdata files from the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group (CPS ORG) for 2022, the actual number of union members is expected to increase between 2021 and 2022. But because of stronger employment growth, the percentage of employees who are union members — the union membership rate, also known as union density — is expected to dip slightly. Both the percentage of employed people who are union members and the number of union members can be expected to fall short of their levels in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same can be expected to be true of union representation more broadly, which encompasses both union members and non-members covered by a union contract.
Gallup polling indicates union approval ratings in 2022 were at their highest level since 1965. In the same survey, 42 percent of nonunion workers were open to or extremely interested in joining a union. So why aren’t we seeing growth in union membership? The reasons are both political and economic. The competitive labor market, though less tight than it was last year, continues to benefit job seekers. While this may reduce the risks of organizing a union in the US, it also makes it easier for workers to find a better job if they are unsatisfied with their current work situation, and more likely that employers take proactive steps to retain employees. The longstanding pro-employer bias of US labor laws means that many workers have legitimate concern about employer retaliation in response to unionization efforts. Moreover, understanding of the well-documented benefits of unionization is likely limited, especially among the 58 percent of nonunion workers who told Gallup they were interested in joining a union.
In October 2022, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reported election filings were up 53 percent in fiscal year 2022 compared to fiscal year 2021. While this is a good sign, BLS survey data unfortunately do not capture the number of workers who are actively seeking to join a union but are not yet members.
Notable Expected Trends by Demographic Group
Younger workers enjoy large union wage and benefit premiums and have been hit by financial crises at key points in their working lives. Union membership shares among workers under age 35 are expected to meet or exceed 2019 levels. However, a year-over-year decrease in the membership rate among workers ages 25 to 34 is also expected.
The gender gap in union membership is expected to increase slightly, with men’s union membership rate staying mostly flat and women’s declining slightly. The union membership rate is expected to fall for white workers, increase for Asian workers, and stay mostly flat for Black workers and Hispanic workers. For the latter two groups, unions play an important role in narrowing wage and benefit disparities with white workers. Black workers are expected to remain the most unionized racial group.
Notable Expected Trends by Sector, Industry, and Occupation
Expect to see union members’ share of employed workers fall substantially in the public sector and stay nearly flat in the private sector, even as the number of union members ticks up in both sectors. Union membership — both the membership share and the number of members — is expected to fall short of 2019 levels in both sectors as well. In the public sector, expect to see the percentage of employed workers who are union members increase in state government while decreasing in federal and local government. The number of union members can be expected to increase at the federal and state levels, while declining at the local level.
The union membership rate and number of union members is expected to increase in accommodation and food services, though still falling short of their levels in 2019. The union membership rate in health care and social assistance industries is expected to stay flat. The union membership rate in private sector healthcare support occupations is expected to rise, while the membership rate among healthcare practitioner and technical occupations is expected to fall.
The union membership rate in transportation and warehousing industries is also expected to fall, while the number of union members in these industries is expected to increase. The plight of some of these workers was recently thrust into the spotlight, when lawmakers moved to impose a contract on railroad workers that left the workers without paid sick leave, an issue over which the workers were otherwise prepared to strike.
The union membership rate is expected to increase in agriculture and related industries while remaining far below the private sector average. Union membership density in private sector farming, fishing, and forestry occupations is also expected to tick up. California farm workers who wish to join unions should have an easier time doing so next year, in light of this year’s passage of Assembly Bill 2183.
CEPR will release an updated, expanded analysis of union membership on Thursday, January 19, after BLS releases its official estimates.