2023 Unionization Trends: Who is Unionizing?

In American society, changes are taking place today, many concerning demographics, the labor force, and how people are organizing. The changes are accelerating, too, because employee activism coupled with the pro-union Biden administration wants to drive change. Labor unions once primarily involved blue-collar workers, but today employees across industries and in every conceivable role are organizing to address issues far beyond compensation, working conditions, and benefits. 2023 unionization trends show the year will be filled with strong employee activism, new alt-unions, strikes, protests, new labor laws, and NLRB decisions in favor of unionizing. Understanding who is unionizing is the first step towards knowing how to make unions unnecessary.

Industries and Occupations of Opportunities 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on Union Members in 2022 reports that union membership increased in the private sector by 193,000. The occupational unionization rates give you a good idea of the occupations and industries the labor unions will focus on in 2023 because they are opportunities to increase membership. The BLS union membership report says that unionization rates were lowest in:  

  • Sales (3.0 percent) 
  • Computers (3.3 percent) 
  • Food prep and serving (3.6 percent) 
  • Management (3.8 percent) 

Despite the appearance of low unionization rates in these occupations, activism was still strong. In fact, the ILR School Labor Action Tracker found 20 striking locations during January of 2023, representing eight different industries. 

Over the last two years, employees went on strike over security, pay, racial justice, discrimination, schedules, staffing levels, union recognition, a demand to rehire a terminated employee, paid time off, demand for the removal of a manager, healthcare, first collective bargaining contract, job security, and on the list goes.  

Considering the wide variety of reasons employees are going on strike, every organization – including private-sector employers - is vulnerable to union organizing. Employee activism is not a fading trend. It is a trend that is growing stronger and is found in food establishments, hospitality facilities, retail establishments, and white-collar jobs that once were not considered union jobs, like tech workers.  

unionization trends in 2023

By Race

The poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson is about freedom, the past's impact on people, and the promise of the future. It was turned into a song that says, "Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us." As America's population becomes more diverse each year, it is wise to recognize that today's workers are more vocal about equity and equality. They're using their public and work voices to let society and employers know they expect to be treated fairly and respectfully and won't settle for anything less. This is employee activism.

The characteristics of union members by race and ethnicity from 2021 to 2022 give clues as to who is most likely to unionize. The percentage of Black and Asian workers who were union members increased.

  • 11.6 percent of Black workers in the United States belonged to a union in 2022, up from 11.5 percent in 2021  
  • 10.3 percent of white workers belonged to a union in 2022, down by .3 percent compared to 2021 at 10.6 percent 
  • 8.3 of Asian workers in the US belonged to a union in 2022, a .6 percent increase over 2021
  • The percentage of unionized Hispanic workers dropped from 9 percent in 2021 to 8.8 in 2022

Between 2021 and 2022, Asian workers in the United States had the largest increase in unionization rates. However, 231,000 more workers of color joined unions, while the number of union-represented white workers decreased by 31,000.    

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are about more than counting heads and implementing initiatives. It's about respecting the needs of your workers, not making assumptions about those needs, appreciating different perspectives, and seeking out those perspectives. This is the real link between becoming unionized and preventing union organizing – employee engagement in which leadership listens to diverse employee voices, learns by gaining an understanding of different life experiences, holds honest conversations, and gives and receives feedback.

Different races have different lived experiences and perspectives. Research has shown a relationship between employee engagement and diversity practices. How your employees perceive your diversity and inclusion practices contributes to their level of engagement. Announcing an initiative is inadequate. Employees must perceive a culture of inclusion and belonging rather than just an inclusive leader. To support diverse employees, you have to remove the barriers they face, and those barriers are different among the races.

Gallup found that employee engagement is decreasing, so it's not surprising that some racial groups believe unionization is the answer. Do you know why certain groups of workers are less engaged than others? The CEO of Diversity and Ability says it well. "Many people who are marginalised by these different forms of oppression will only come forward and bring their whole selves to work when we explicitly show them that they count. We must demonstrate we are doing all we can to break down the barriers they face. This means being overtly anti-racist, calling out misogyny, and celebrating diversity in all its forms. When we build workplaces that illustrate our commitment to equality, fairness, and respect, then we will start to change the tide." 

unionization trends 2023

Oxfam research on low wages found that wages and race/ethnicity are connected because people of color and women hold so many low-wage jobs. For example:

  • 46 percent of Hispanic & Latino workers earn less than $15 an hour
  • 47 percent of Black workers earn less than $15 an hour
  • Women of color are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs
  • Half of working women of color earn less than $15 an hour

The Economic Policy Institute research found that most low-wage workers don't have paid sick leave. Most jobs where workers don't get paid sick leave are low-wage jobs, and employers hire many part-time employees. Following are some of the statistics.

  • 86 percent of full-time workers have paid sick leave versus 51 percent of part-time.
  • 87 percent of union workers have paid sick leave versus 76 percent of nonunion.
  • 62 percent of services occupations have paid sick leave
  • 53 percent of workers in leisure and hospitality have paid sick days
  • 68 percent of retail trade workers have paid sick leave

A study published in Health Affairs found that one in five of all working Black women work in the healthcare sector. They are more likely to work in low-wage, hazardous jobs compared to their white and/or male counterparts. Low wages, lack of benefits, and hazardous working conditions characterize black women's jobs in the healthcare industry. The types of jobs held, like nurse aides and nurses, are more subject to injuries and stress compared to other workers. 

who is unionizing unionization trends

By Age 

There is no need for employers to wait any longer because the younger generations already make up a sizable percentage of the workforce. By 2030, workers aged 25-34 are projected to make up 21.6 percent of the workforce, and people aged 35-44 will make up 23 percent. Currently, people 25-34 years old number 35,300,000 employed in the civilian labor force, and people aged 35-44 years old number 34,624,000. This means that people under the age of 44 account for 42.6 percent of the total civilian labor force. 

One of the ways labor unions are working to increase membership is by focusing on younger employees. The BLS found that workers aged 45-54 had the highest union membership rate of any group, at 12.6 percent in 2022. The lowest union membership rate in 2020 was 4.4 percent for workers aged 16-24. But the younger workers are employee activists, and labor unions see the potential to significantly increase membership by attracting Gen Z and millennials going forward. 

The Starbucks unionization trend is a good example. Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, has successfully unionized more than 268 stores in three dozen states. According to Zippia research, there are 611,403 baristas employed in the US, and the average age is 24. The average age of employees at Amazon, where employee activism led to a unionized distribution center, is 20-30 years. Approximately 58 percent of Apple employees are between 20-30 years old. These are all companies where some workers have unionized some of their locations. 

By Worker Status

Another vital statistic indicating opportunities for labor unions is that the union membership rate for full-time workers was 11 percent, and for part-time workers, it was 5.5 percent. There is a large group of part-time workers, and many are likely to be interested in organizing because they need regular work schedules or benefits and believe they are underpaid. These are common issues in retail, accommodations, food services and food processing, and healthcare. 

Any worker can unionize unless disallowed explicitly by the NLRA, i.e., agriculture workers and construction contractors. Though the tendency is to think of union membership in terms of full-time permanent workers, any employee can unionize. 

Though the unionization trends are discussed by demographics, the reality is that many factors are working together. Raise Up the South was formed because the founders wanted to push for $15 an hour and address the fact that low-wage workers are often part-time and frequently change jobs. Organizing employees in general versus organizing employees in a specific place of employment makes more sense when employees move around a lot in the industry.

Alt-union organizations that organize employees across industries are becoming powerful union forces. The Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) is a new union for low-wage, high-turnover workers in the services industry in the South. The USSW wants to turn these jobs into "good union jobs." Founded in November 2022, it grew out of the Raise Up the South union and targets workers in retail, food service, and care. It is a new union that combines human rights and labor organizing to get higher wages, stronger safety protocols, fair and consistent work schedules, and a new respect for the Black and Latino workers who make up the union's majority. They want a seat at the table. The current focus is on Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. 

Per the Census Bureau, a "New Great Migration" is bringing Black Americans back to the South. It is driven by younger, college-educated Black Americans, and the concentration of the gains is in the Southeast and Texas. The Latino and Hispanic populations are also growing in the South. But many of the jobs created in the South are low-wage and part-time. 

  • Leisure and hospitality added the most jobs (128,000) in January 2023 per the DOL Jobs Report, followed by professional and business services (82,000), government (74,000), healthcare (58,000), retail (30,000), and construction (25,000) and many of these jobs are part-time.
  • More Americans are working part-time due to economic reasons like being unable to find full-time work and reduced hours; The BLS found that part-time employees working part-time for economic reasons increased by 315,000 from January 2022 to January 2023.
  • Per the BLS, from January 2022 to January 2023, the number of seasonally adjusted part-time workers in private industries increased by 2,595,000 in non-agricultural industries for economic and personal reasons.

The Shriver Center conducted interviews with low-wage workers across Illinois and found that "health aides, rideshare workers, and warehouse workers struggle with not just low wages but a lack of benefits, insufficient safety protections, and job security." 

Combining All the Factors

Though the preceding discussion tried to separate specific demographics for discussion purposes, the reality is that these factors are interrelated. The bottom line conclusion when discussing upcoming 2023 unionization trends is that unionizing by traditional labor unions and alt-unions will be very active in the next two years. You should keep some additional points in mind to prepare for the changing times. 

The Art of Labor Relations CTA

The Social in ESG

More than addressing diversity is required. It would be best if you addressed diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in HR policies, and your leaders should be trained in promoting these areas. Attorneys Vinson & Elkins discuss the emerging role of ESG (environmental, social, governance) as a factor in whether employees will choose to unionize. The attorneys argue that unionization is a breakdown in communication between employees and management (important to their discussion), and employees see ESG through a localized and personal lens. The social factor in ESG should include understanding and acting on the employee's viewpoint. 

Employers that want to prevent the kind of breakdown in communication that leads to unionization should consider acting quickly to internally and actively create a program for monitoring and addressing the localized concerns that employees may already be raising on social media and among themselves. Employers should empower human resources and other management personnel to identify and come forward with employee concerns." One of the recommendations is to listen to the workforce on diversity and inclusion. You can start by asking what diversity means to each person and how the company can better meet the employee's definition. There should be a connection between those in the sustainability division and those who make decisions impacting DEI. 

Consistent and Fair Workplace Policies

Every union today has demands for things like more pay and better benefits. But they also promise employees a stronger employee voice. It has also become clear that developing genuinely diverse and inclusive workplaces is becoming more complex. Labor unions are telling employees they can bargain for measurable diversity and inclusion and can oversee hiring practices. It's important to review your Human Resources policies and procedures to make sure they are fair and applied consistently in practice. It's one thing to have a policy and another to ensure your leaders follow them, and leadership accountability is essential. 

who is unionizing

Maintain Open Lines of Communication 

All of the factors discussed point to two facts. One is that the labor force is transitioning, which means the workforce is too. Your leaders must stay on top of employee needs. Another is maintaining open lines of communication between employees and leadership because that's the only way to identify employee needs. You can utilize various strategies, including employee surveys, digital communications, and meetings, but the key to success is ensuring a two-way feedback system. 

Train Your Leaders 

Not all union organizing results in unionization. However, the labor relations and employee engagement training you provide leaders can make a difference. How managers react to union organizing, speak to employees, explain the employer's perspective on unions, and can clearly articulate what is and is not possible as far as meeting employee needs will make the difference as to whether a union drive is successful. 

2023 unionization trends will likely include as much turmoil as the last two years. However, labor unions are adapting, as well as companies like yours. The times will keep changing, and IRI Consultants can help you ensure your leadership is ready to adapt.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email