Unionization booms in 2023, but is far from 1950s peak

For unions, unrest in the labor market looks to be paying off in terms of better pay, better benefits, and better work rules. 

But that begs the question: Are labor unions on their way to matching a 1954-high when more than one in three workers carried union member cards?

The mantra for many American unions in 2023 has been, "If we don't like what you're offering, we'll strike," and unions flexed their muscles throughout 2023.

There have been more than 300 strikes with over 450,000 workers across the country so far in 2023, a Cornell University report found. 

The high profile UAW strikes earned workers a 33% pay raises and other benefits.

Labor strikes across California came from teachers in Oakland and Los Angeles, healthcare workers at Kaiser as well as actors and writers, and even Starbucks baristas. 

Two successful strike threats from UPS and United Airlines pilots also led to big gains. 

"2023 was a breakout year for unions," said UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Harley Shaiken.

Shaiken is a long-time expert on labor, labor unions and labor strikes. 

"If this were a baseball game, unions hit a grand slam," Shaiken said, adding that an increase in union membership tends to improve conditions for non-union workers as well.

"Employers who don't have unions want to stay that way, and they will seek to come close to union gains, if not match them," Shaiken said.

He sees the new UAW contract as a way, in 2024, to bring many non-union autoworkers in the U.S. into their fold. 

"Tesla workers in Fremont earn about half of what UAW workers will earn with this new contract," Shaiken said.

Union success in 2023 has been impressive, but it has a long way to go before returning to its glory days, said Michael Bernick, a former director with California's Employment Development Department. 

"A very limited number of workers in California are unionized. Currently, it's about 16 to 17 percent," Bernick said, adding that the majority of unionized workers are in the public sector.

A lack of jobseekers, a strong economy and the state mandating higher pay for many classes of workers, have helped wage gains in recent years, Bernick said.

So, 2023 could turn out to be something less than a grand slam. 

"I've seen a number of events that have been pointed to as seminal changes in unionization in California, and they've actually had very limited impact," Bernick said.

But the public, by and large, supports the organizing efforts.

Polls, including the latest Gallup polls, reveal that about 70% of Americans approve of unions. Younger Americans poll even higher.