In the Year of the Union, Black women and Latinas lead union growth in 2023
2023 was a banner year for labor actions and unions. “Hot Strike Summer” morphed into “The Year of the Union” as a strong job market, more than a decade of intensive labor organizing kicked off by the “Fight for 15” and a growing recognition of the need for worker protections through the ongoing pandemic helped drive major wins for workers. Striking United Auto Workers, writers, actors, UPS workers and Kaiser Permanente health care workers secured strong contracts that include benefits like increased wages, health care access and job protections, while U.S. rail workers secured paid sick leave for a large segment of their workforce. Workers at Starbucks continued to gain momentum towards their first contract in defiance of blatant union-busting tactics, building on years of organizing work and hundreds of successful store votes. In part because of these high-profile strikes, unions saw near record highs of public support in 2023, with two-thirds of people approving of unions, more than 6 in 10 saying unions help the U.S. economy and one-third of people predicting unions will be stronger in the future.
Workers’ efforts were coupled with the Biden administration’s success in reinvigorating the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency dedicated to protecting employees’ rights to organize and addressing unfair labor practices. Biden’s pivotal appointments of Jennifer Abruzzo as NLRB’s general counsel and Gwynne Wilcox as an NLRB member paved the way for worker victories last year, including improving workers’ ability to organize by restoring Obama-era union election rules and creating a new framework to “both effectuate employees’ right to bargain through representatives of their own choosing and improve the fairness and integrity of Board-conducted elections,” among a slew of other decisions to improve workers’ rights. The effects have been immediate for growing unions, such as Amazon.
And while we have been tracking the impact of unions for months, this week we got brand new data on unions in 2023. While these data do not capture the effects of the buzzy new contracts negotiated last year, they show an increase in the number of union members by 139,000 workers, including 62,000 women. However, the addition of 2.7 million jobs in 2023 meant that although we saw an overall increase in the number of workers in unions, the overall union membership rate was little changed from 2022. Public sector unions saw declines, driven by job losses among local government workers.
Women’s union membership rate was largely unchanged in 2023 at 9.5 percent, though Black women and Latinas both saw increases in union membership. The share of Black women workers who are union members increased from 10.3 percent to 10.5 percent, while Latinas increased from 8.5 percent to 8.8 percent. Latinas had the largest increase in union membership among women. Asian women experienced the steepest decline, from 9.1 percent to 7.8 percent. Due to a lack of investment by the federal government, union membership data for American Indian/Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and multiracial women are not included in this data release.
Growing union membership is especially important for women. Our analysis of the new data finds that union members and those represented by unions have higher wages compared to their non-union counterparts. Women receive a bigger bump than men, and the “union bump” is especially large for Latinas. Among full-time Latina workers, union members typically make $1,041 each week, compared to just $776 each week among non-union workers, a bump of 34 percent or almost $14,000 a year.
And these higher wages mean union workers have smaller wage gaps than non-union workers. For example, among full-time workers, women who are not in unions are typically paid just 83 cents for every dollar paid to man – while among union members, women are paid 88 cents to a man’s dollar.
Improving union membership for women is essential beyond wages. Women union members have more access to essential benefits like paid leave, pensions, and health coverage – benefits women are especially likely to lack – and unions have initiated efforts to support access to reproductive health care and gender affirming care. Yet, as today’s data make clear, women have not always benefitted as much from unions as men have. Women’s union membership – especially union membership for Latinas and Asian women – still lags behind men’s and many of the high-profile union actions this summer were in male-dominated industries like auto manufacturing and transportation. That’s why having women union leaders like Stacy Davis Gates, Fran Drescher and Liz Shuler, elected officials committed to unions like Senator Laphonza Butler, organizers like Ai-Jen Poo, and supporting organizing efforts in women-dominated industries like domestic workers and child care is so essential – as is bringing a gender analysis to the current union resurgence.
So what does the future look like for unions in 2024? Today’s low rate of union membership – less than one-third of what it was at its all-time high in 1945 – is the result of decades-long efforts to dismantle the power of unions, so there is significant room and momentum to grow union membership and power. Unions are key tools against income inequality and the erosion of democracy. It will certainly take time to reverse decades of dismantling workers’ rights, but worker power can be restored through passing legislation like the PRO Act which would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize and bargain collectively, impose stronger remedies when employers interfere with those rights or refuse to bargain in good faith and address employers’ misclassification of workers as contractors for collective bargaining purposes. Strong pro-worker legislation, along with a worker-focused NLRB can help turn the tide for workers.
We have a long way to go – but 2023 showed momentum is shifting in favor of unions – and for workers, especially women, that’s great news.
(C) National for Women and Families