Why union membership hit a historic low even as numbers climbed

Labor unions added thousands of new members last year, but still hit their lowest share of the overall job market to date

Protester at labor rally in Wisconsin
(Image credit: Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Thursday that union membership rates dropped to just 10.1 percent of the overall job market in 2022, marking a historic low in the overall share of union membership in the broader national job market. While 2022's record low percentage comes at the tail end of a decades-long decline in union membership rates from its peak of 20.1 percent in 1983 — the first year the government began calculating labor membership data — the BLS notes that the number of union members actually increased by more than a quarter of a million people between 2021 and 2022. Taken together, the two pieces of data aren't as incompatible as they might seem at first glance, and ultimately point to the challenges unions face as the country's labor force continues recovering from the damage wrought during the COVID pandemic's peak. Here's everything you need to know:

What does the data actually show?

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Rafi Schwartz, The Week US

Rafi Schwartz has worked as a politics writer at The Week since 2022, where he covers elections, Congress and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic focusing largely on politics, a senior writer with Splinter News, a staff writer for Fusion's news lab, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine, a Jewish life and culture publication. Rafi's work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD and The Forward, among others.