Unions still represent only a small fraction of U.S. workers

Only 6% of private-sector employees in 2022 were members of unions
VP, GR & Workforce Development
August 30, 2023

In the wake of the recent labor contract agreement between UPS and the Teamsters, Teamsters President Sean O’Brien called the deal a “game changer” for U.S. workers. “This contract sets a new standard in the labor movement and raises the bar for all workers,” he said.

O’Brien’s boast is nothing new. We have been told countless times that one event will “revitalize” or “galvanize” the union movement. Some recent examples include the election of President Joe Biden, the emergence of the cannabis industry, teachers’ strikes and the COVID-19 pandemic.


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But nothing ever really changes. The fact is unions still represent only a small fraction of U.S. workers, and this is certainly true of the retail sector.

While retail wages have been on the rise, union membership has been declining. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that only 6% of private-sector employees in 2022 were members of unions, down from 16.8% in 1983, when the Labor Department started tracking union membership.

American workers largely understand the myriad of negative outcomes associated with unionization. For starters, few are interested in paying the dues to unions. The cost of belonging to a union varies, but the mid-range pay deduction is 1.5%-2.5% of an employee's gross wage. These significant fees reduce or even deplete any pay gains from unionization. And if a worker is not in a right-to-work state, paying dues will be mandatory.

Workers also lack clarity as to what happens with their union dues beyond the collective bargaining process. For example, their dollars can be, and often are, routed to political causes with which they may or may not agree. Worse, it is not uncommon for union workers’ money to be stolen or embezzled.

Unions are a product of an era of industrialization when many workers were unskilled and lacked leverage in dealing with employers. Today’s workforce is much better educated and skilled. Regardless, unions still embrace an archaic model of labor relations that treats workers as simple commodities with equal abilities.

For upwardly mobile, eager workers who intend to advance their careers, unionized workplaces can be frustrating. Seniority — not skill — is usually rewarded in a collective bargaining environment. Moreover, by their very nature, unions generally prevent the most effective, creative and productive workers from innovating and reaping the rewards of the worker’s individual efforts. The careers of these workers are often hindered, not helped, by unionization.

In sum, the notion that this UPS-Teamsters agreement will change the minds of the 94% of private-sector workers who choose not to join a union is absurd.

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