State of the U.S. Unions 2024

Eric Dirnbach
8 min readFeb 22, 2024


This is my annual roundup of labor data on union membership, elections and strikes. How is the U.S. labor movement doing?

Each year the U.S. government releases several sets of union data, covering union membership, union elections and strikes. We’ll review the data and discuss what it all means. My summary from last year can be found here.

Union Membership

In January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its annual Union Members summary. The labor movement membership rate went down again, as it does almost every year. As the BLS states,

The union membership rate — the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions — was 10.0 percent in 2023, little changed from the previous year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.4 million, also showed little movement over the year. In 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.

Union membership went up 139,000 workers to 14,244,000, but the overall workforce grew more, so the union membership rate dropped from 10.1% to 10.0%. The rate for the private sector is even lower at 6.0%, the same as last year. The public sector rate also fell a bit, but remains much higher at 32.5%. Union membership increases were primarily accounted for by workers of color and young workers. The numbers for all union represented workers, which also include workers who choose to not be union members but are covered by the union contract, are slightly higher for all these.

Particularly alarming is that union membership is concentrated in so few states. Almost half of all union members are in just six states (CA, NY, PA, IL, NJ, OH), and 11 states have union membership rates less than 5% (AZ, FL, GA, ID, LA, NC, SC, SD, TX, UT, VA). The labor movement has a very small presence in too many states, which has dire ramifications for political progress, as we’ll discuss later.

Overall, these are really disappointing numbers, especially because the last year saw some exciting organizing and strike activity, which we’ll discuss more. Below is the union density for the last century, and we see this latest decrease just continues a long term trend. Indeed, since 1965, union density has risen only four times from one year to the next, and fallen in forty-five.

From Despite Worker Militancy, Union Rates Are Still Down

Union Elections

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released its annual summary of private sector union elections for fiscal year 2023, which covers the year from October 2022 through September 2023. I previously analyzed this data here, but will summarize the main findings.

There’s a lot of good news here. The number of elections increased 5% from 1,249 the year before, to 1,316 this past year. The number of union election wins rose 11%, and the union win rate surged from 72% last year to an excellent 76% this year. Unions have been getting better at winning elections and after many years of running fewer elections, are starting to run more of them. The chart below shows the trend for the last few decades.

Moreover, the last two years have seen an increase in the number of workers who won their election, with a 66% increase last year, from 47,350 to 78,750. The number of workers organized in NLRB elections last year is the highest in decades, due to growing union win rate and an increase in the average winning bargaining unit size over time. An analysis by Bloomberg Law has a different worker total, but agrees that this is “the largest single-year cohort since 2000, and the fourth largest since at least 1990.” The chart below shows this trend of workers in elections, where “Organized Workers” are the ones who won their election.

So these are some good recent trends, but this level of organizing activity is still far too low. It’s important to acknowledge that there are also new private sector organizing wins that come through other channels, such as achieving voluntary union recognition from employers, but even with that, overall new organizing needs to increase dramatically.


The most prominent data set for strikes is collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Unfortunately, since the 1980s BLS only tracks work stoppages of at least 1,000 workers, so it’s an incomplete picture of strike activity. A work stoppage can be a union strike or an employer lockout, but the vast majority of these are strikes.

For 2023, BLS reports that there were 33 large work stoppages that started that year, involving 458,900 workers. This is a big increase from 23 work stoppages and 120,600 workers the year before. BLS states that this is the largest number of annual worker stoppages since the 39 in 2000. Since 1986, only one year (2018) had a higher number of workers involved.

The number of large strikes has increased in recent years, as many of us have been excited about a renewed “strike wave.” However, these recent numbers should be seen in context. In the 1950s through 1970s, there were hundreds of large strikes every year, and in more recent years, it’s usually just dozens. Here’s the trend of the average number of annual large work stoppages and workers in each decade (with the 2020s = 2020 through 2023), and we can see the huge decrease in recent decades.

The best other publicly available data set on work stoppages comes from the Cornell ILR-School Labor Action Tracker. It tracks any work stoppages, no matter how many workers, so it’s a more complete picture of strike activity. It now has data for the last three years, finding that 2021 had 279 work stoppages, 2022 had 433, and 2023 had 470, with the vast majority of these being strikes. The number of workers who struck in these years increased from 140,000 to 224,000 to 539,000. The Bloomberg Law analysis has a similar number of striking workers for 2023 and claims it is the second highest number since 1990.

What Does This All Mean?

Unions had some huge high-profile wins last year. This includes the UAW strike at the Big 3 auto manufacturers, the Teamsters contract win at UPS, the successful Hollywood strikes by the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA, the union coalition strike at Kaiser Permanente, the UNITE HERE strikes at Los Angeles hotels, the UNITE HERE contract settlements with Las Vegas casinos, and the UE winning a number of huge elections with graduate workers. And of course the Starbucks organizing continues, with almost 400 store election wins in the last few years. The overall increase in union elections, wins and strikes is really encouraging and exciting.

Some more good news is that unions are extremely popular, with a 67% approval rating measured by Gallup in their annual poll, and union approval rates at 65% or higher for the last four years. Moreover, a major survey several years ago found that about half of all non-union workers want to be in a union, which is tens of millions of workers.

But all of this increased organizing and strike activity, and high union popularity, has not yet turned around the decline of the union membership rate. A major reason is that the obstacles for successful organizing remain high. It’s difficult to organize due to intense and routine employer union busting. Employers were charged with violating the law in over 40% of union elections, and they spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on “union avoidance” consultants. The current National Labor Relations Board has taken some significant steps to protect the right to organize, for example with its “Cemex framework” for union recognition, and its faster election timeline rules. But unions still have to find ways to scale up successful organizing within tough legal terrain.

An Economic Policy Institute analysis says, “The fact that tens of millions of workers want to join a union and can’t is a glaring testament to how broken U.S. labor law is.” But meaningful labor law reform, like the PRO Act, seems unlikely in the near term. This is our political conundrum. It’s a challenge for unions to grow within the current system, but meaningful labor law reform will likely come when the labor movement is large and disruptive enough to get it.

However, the small union presence in many states means that elected officials there face no political consequences when voting against worker and union interests. Many major progressive political goals will be difficult if not impossible to achieve without a larger labor movement. And this problem is intertwined with the alarming growth of an authoritarian political culture. While it’s true that a problematic 40% of folks from union households were Trump voters in the 2020 election, unions have always been one of the best vehicles for worker political education and participation. Studies have shown that union membership shifts white workers’ racial attitudes in a more progressive direction, since a multi-racial union gives workers from different racial backgrounds the opportunity to fight together in solidarity. Indeed, a contributing reason for the movement of some of the white working class toward more conservative politics is the decline of unions.

Let’s Go All In

Given the size of the overall workforce, unions need to organize over one million workers per year to meaningfully increase union density, and current organizing levels are about 1/10 that amount. A recent analysis of labor movement finances shows that unions could hire tens of thousands more organizers, and they should. But we will never have enough union staff to reach the millions of workers who want a union. We have to find ways to help train and empower more workers to organize themselves and build their own workplace unions. The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee is a promising model, with hundreds of volunteers successfully helping workers launch their own organizing campaigns, and connecting many of them with unions.

Overall some of the data we’re seeing shows that we may be in the early stages of a rare labor upsurge, and that should eventually be reflected in a growing union membership. A look at the union density chart shown earlier shows that the union membership rate increased in two huge bursts, for the private sector in the 1930s/1940s and the public sector in the 1960s/1970s. There is reason to believe that we have good conditions for another upsurge. This includes a politicized generation of newer Gen Z workers coupled with low unemployment which gives workers more leverage, and a better NLRB.

But the labor movement needs to go all in on organizing to take advantage of these factors. This certainly involves hiring more organizers and devoting more resources to traditional organizing. It should also have unions providing organizing training to interested workers on a large scale. There should also be more interest in supporting pre-majority unions, where workers are organizing at workplaces that are unlikely to get recognition and contract, at least in the near term, but can still win workplace improvements. And we need a massive labor movement salting program to place thousands of workers in strategic workplaces to organize new unions. We have to take more risks and think bigger, now.



Eric Dirnbach

Labor Movement Researcher, Activist, Campaigner, Organizer, Educator, Writer & Socialist, based in New York City. @EricDirnbach