Are unions making a comeback?

World Today

Organized labor saw major victories in the United States in 2023.

In May, 11,500 members of Writers Guild of America put down their laptops in a work stoppage against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that would last 148 days.

In July, they were joined by 160,000 members Screen Actors Guild.

After months at the picket line, the industry agreed to most of their demands including streaming bonuses, AI usage terms and staffing demands.

In September, 160,000 members of the United Auto Workers began strikes against the big three major auto makers, Ford, GM, and Stellantis that lasted 43 days. Ultimately the companies agreed to wage increases and commitments to expand plants, among other terms.

The October strike of 76,500 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente only lasted three days, but ended with pay increases and promises to invest in more permanent staff to fill major gaps.

In November 5,000 Starbucks workers in multiple states held a work stoppage on “Red Cup Day” the free cup giveaway that’s one of the busiest days of the year.

Other strikes in 2023 also involved education staff, machinists, electrical and steel workers.

In all, 467,210 workers were involved in major work stoppages in 2023, a major increase from the 120,600 workers that went on strike in 2022, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For organized labor, the gains of 2023 are promising at a time when union membership has seen steady declines in the last 70 years.

Membership in unions peaked in 1945 with 34 percent of the workforce in a union. In 2022, membership density was only 10 percent and is dominated by public-sector employees such as police officers and teachers.

Union membership for private-sector workers is currently only 6.2 percent compared to 20 percent in the UK, and 60 percent in Denmark.


The rise of unions in the United States coincided with the rise of U.S. manufacturing, and as manufacturing declined in the 20th Century, so did union membership.

In the 1940s manufacturing made up 32 percent of jobs, and today it’s only 8.5 percent, PBS reports.

Production is now increasingly automated, subcontracted, and outsourced overseas.

Meanwhile the U.S. service jobs have grown, a sector that’s harder to unionize due to higher employee turnover and makeup where companies are smaller and at more disparate locations.

While market forces have certainly changed the workforce, manufacturing decline is only one aspect of the decline of the union membership. A report by the Economic Policy Institute argues that the pace, intensity and timing of the decline in manufacturing and union membership don’t match up.

Another large factor is the erosion of U.S. labor protections.

Almost as soon as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 passed — which established the right and process for private workers to unionize — corporations worked to erode union activity.

In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act (over President Harry Truman’s veto), which modified the NLRA to include “right to work” laws for states.

These laws prevent unions from requiring membership and membership dues, as a condition of employment. While under the NLRA, unions had to still represent all employees, even ones not in the union, in each recognized bargaining unit.

This significantly cut the financial and bargaining power of unions.

There are currently 27 states that have a “right to work” law and these states have lower percentages of union membership.

“Just 5.2% of private-sector workers in “right to work” states are union members or are covered by a union contract, compared with 10.2% in non-“right to work” states,” Bloomberg Law expert Andrew Baker writes.

Taft-Hartley also banned unions from engaging in a “secondary activity” such as a strike or boycott against a neutral party to put pressure on them to stop working with the primary company in the labor dispute. It also required the National Labor Relations Board to prioritize lawsuits against unions for participating in secondary activities over other employee-rights cases such as the firing of union supporters.

Union membership has declined steadily since Taft-Hartley.

In the 1970s and 1980s employers have also used more replacement workers during strikes.

Notably in 1981, President Ronald Regan broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike after they walked off the job during negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration. Regan ordered them to return to their jobs, and those who didn’t were fired.

They were replaced with supervisors and military and non-striking air traffic controllers.


The establishment of a 40-hour work week, paid vacation, sick leave, overtime pay, social security, and collective bargaining in the United States is due to the work of unions.

Economists also point to the relationship between countries with strong union membership and those with a secure middle class and greater income equality.

In the United States, union declines have occurred as the middle class has become smaller and the gap between rich and poor become larger.

For example, the ratio of CEO-to-worker pay in the United States is twice that of Germany, and three times that of Japan, Bloomberg reports.

Studies have also found that gains made by unions also impact nonunion workers, as companies strive to remain competitive among job seekers through pay and better conditions and benefits.

Despite the historic declines, the years post-COVID-pandemic has been high points for union support.

An August 2023 Gallup Poll found that a 67 percent of Americans approve of labor unions. In 2022, 71 percent said they approved of unions, the last time it was that high, it was 1965.

The 2023 poll also found that a record number of Americans, 61 percent, believe unions help rather than hurt the economy, and the percent of people who want unions to gain more power also hit a record high of 43 percent in 2023.