While Amazon
warehouses and Starbucks
stores were the scene of high-profile unionization efforts last year, new government numbers show the overall rate of unionized workers in the economy fell to a record low during 2022 — even as unions added more than a quarter million members to their ranks.

The unionization rate in America’s workforce dropped to 10.1% from 10.3% a year earlier, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Thursday. That’s the lowest rate on record when compared to data that stretches back to 1983, when the unionization rate was over 20%.

Organized labor’s lagging rates reflect a decades-long story about the contracting reach of unions.

But Thursday’s numbers also reflect the mix between a hot job market and a relative climb in organizing activity as more workers press for better pay and working conditions during a time of high inflation.

A complicated year for unions: So while the actual rate of unionization fell, the number of wage and salary workers in labor unions reached 14.3 million in 2022, up 273,000 workers on the previous year. That’s in contrast to 2021, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics said both the rate and number of workers belong to unions decreased by approximately 241,000.

What’s behind the numbers: Last year’s job market is a key backdrop, as employers vied to fill open spots and meet consumer demand. The economy added 5.3 million wage and salary workers, the labor agency noted.

“This disproportionately large increase in the number of total wage and salary employment compared with the increase in the number of union members led to a decrease in the union membership rate,” it said Thursday.

Why it matters: The labor department data noted that non-unionized workers last year made roughly 85 cents for every dollar paid to unionized workers. The median weekly earnings of non-unionized workers were $1,029, which were 85% of the $1,216 median weekly earnings going to unionized workers.

In addition to the 14.3 million union members, there were also 1.7 million non-affiliated workers last year who had jobs covered by a union contract.

The numbers are just one data point, organized labor advocates said.

In fiscal year 2022, the number of petitions to join a labor union actually climbed by 53% year over year.

They also note last year’s increase in petitions for union representation, the documents seeking a vote on union formation. In fiscal year 2022, the number of petitions climbed 53% year over year, according to the National Labor Relations Board. It was the highest number of petitions since 2016, the NLRB said.

The federal agency, tasked with overseeing worker rights to organize, recently received its first funding appropriation increase since 2014. The extra $25 million came as part of Capitol Hill’s year-end spending deal.

Approval of unions hit the highest point since 1965, with a Gallup poll from September 2022 showing that 71% of people approved labor unions.

“The momentum of the moment we are in is clear,” ALF-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a Thursday statement. “Organizing victories are happening in every industry, public and private, and every sector of our economy all across the country. The wave of organizing will continue to gather steam in 2023 and beyond, despite broken labor laws that rig the system against workers.”

“Any increase in the amount of unionized workers, or those represented by a union, is a win for the labor movement,” said Margaret Poydock, policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. The record low rate is “not because workers don’t want unions. But it’s because the obstacles workers face,” she said.

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The union membership numbers underscored the need for extra legal protections, both Poydock and AFL-CIO said. “Millions more would be part of unions if our labor laws were not broken,” Poydock said.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would make it easier to organize. It passed in the House of Representatives in 2019 and 2021, when Democrats controlled the chamber. Among its provisions, Poydock said the PRO act would ban “captive audience” meetings where management requires workers to listen to the downsides of unionization from their point of view.

The numbers come as the high-profile unionization efforts continue. Last week, a regional director at the National Labor Relations Board dismissed Amazon’s objections to a successful unionization vote at a Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse. Amazon has said it will appeal the decision.

A Starbucks spokesman said organized stores are a small portion of its stores, with less than 3% of 9,000 company-owned stores seeking union representation.

There have been 344 elections at Starbucks stores, with 277 voting for unionization and 272 of the elections being certified, an NLRB spokeswoman said.

“As a result of the direct relationship preferred by a vast majority of our partners, we continue to work side-by-side with them to reinvent Starbucks for the future,” the spokesman said, noting pay, benefit and training improvements during 2022.