How Much of the U.S. Workforce Is Unionized?

May 4, 2023

Labor unions in the United States play a crucial role in the American workforce, standing up for the rights of workers in many different fields. Their boards are created by union nominations and elections, and they strive to protect their members and bargain with employers as a collective unit. 

The number of American workers who belong to unions is vital for comprehending the state of organized labor, the impact unions have on the economy, and the present status of workers' rights. 

What Is a Union?

A union is an organization that represents a group of laborers in a certain trade or profession. Its primary purpose is to negotiate with employers for higher wages, better working conditions, and benefits for their members and families.

Unions have a long history in certain industries such as construction, transportation, manufacturing, and public service. They are often formed when workers are confronted with unsafe working conditions or unfair business tactics. After a union is formed, representatives negotiate collective bargaining agreements that delineate the terms and conditions of service for unionized laborers.

Members of unions benefit from having an organization behind them that provides bargaining strength, representation in disputes, and access to education and training opportunities to improve their skill levels and career prospects. Unions can further help in safeguarding workers from mistreatment and bigotry in the place of work. 

Union Membership Rates in the United States

The number of unionized workers in the United States dropped considerably over the last few decades, although there is a growing interest today as workers are starting to push back at being overtasked at work. In 1983, membership in trade unions reached its highest point, representing a little more than 20% of the overall workforce. However, membership fell to about 11% in 2020. 

The decline in union membership has been attributed to multiple factors, including economic and labor market shifts, government policies, and decreasing public support for unions.

An important reason for the drop in union membership rates is the changing nature of the economy, which has moved away from manufacturing and other industries where unions have traditionally been strong. Instead, more Americans work in the service sector today. Many of these jobs are low-paying and require few skills, making it harder for unions to organize and represent workers.

The impact of certain government policies also hampered unions' ability to negotiate effectively. In some jurisdictions, laws prohibit unions from collecting dues from all employees in a unionized workplace. Additionally, some anti-union policymakers have pushed for changes to labor laws that would make it more challenging to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.

Lastly, waning public support for unions contributed to the drop in union membership rates. Some people think unions are obsolete or redundant, while others perceive them as a barrier to economic expansion and competitiveness. Nonetheless, supporters of unions assert that they are vital in safeguarding the rights and interests of laborers and in creating a fairer society. 

You might be wondering if you can strike without a union if you are employed by an unscrupulous company that is taking advantage of its workers. There are many downsides and potential consequences to striking without a union, but there are many ways to form or join one.

How to Join a Union

Many workers want to find a unionized position attractive because wages and benefits are better, and the union protects their livelihood. The benefits of unions are so extensive that employers connected to a union are in high demand among job seekers.

If you are in the job market and are interested in a union job, here are a few ways to get involved:

Locate Your Local Union

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) website is a useful resource. It can help you find a nearby union in the field you are interested in. The local union can help you identify employers with job openings. It may be beneficial to contact union officials for support. The AFL-CIO website also has details about getting a union organizer's assistance.

Join an Apprenticeship Program

To obtain a union job, you need training and experience in a skilled trade such as plumbing, carpentry, electrical, masonry, etc. Most unions have apprenticeship programs that teach you skills and help connect you with unionized employers.

You can search online for available apprenticeship programs in your state, check out for apprenticeship opportunities close to you, or visit the United States Department of Labor website to find apprenticeship programs associated with unions.

Check Union Job Websites

The website of the Union Jobs Clearinghouse is frequently updated with a comprehensive list of unions and open job positions in union-affiliated organizations across the country. If you want to work for an organization like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Union Jobs Clearinghouse can help you identify which organizations are hiring and for which positions.

Moving Forward With Unions

Take a look at what are the three functions of a union. Even though union membership has dropped in the U.S. for a variety of reasons–such as economic shifts, governmental policies, and public opinion–there are many benefits to being affiliated with a union that can help you improve your wages, benefits, and working conditions.

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