Is union power on a downswing? As ever, the answer may depend on who you ask, or how you do the math.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on Tuesday released new data showing the rate of union membership at a historic low in 2023, with just 10% of all wage and salary workers across all US represented.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions (or covered by a union contract) sat at 14.4 million. That didn’t move much over the last year, the BLS said, but the number of workers being hired did. That diluted the share of unionized workers, lowering it by one-tenth of a percentage point, just enough to secure a new record.

The federal government said that the unionized rate has fallen steadily since 1983 — the first year for which similar numbers are available — when 20.1% of all American workers belonged to a union. The numbers come from the Current Population Survey, a monthly gauge of about 60,000 eligible households that gathers information on employment.

The latest little bit of decline comes as the economy is adding millions of jobs, more of them in non-unionized, private sector positions. From a raw numbers perspective, there actually are more unionized workers than there were a year ago in the US. It’s just that the nearly 140,000 added were too small a share of the 2.7 million American jobs added to move the needle upward.

So what does it all mean for any union’s ability to promote workers’ rights and win public sympathy? That may very much depend on conditions on the ground.

Anyone close to nursing homes knows 2022 and early 2023 were ripe for strikes and pickets that drew attention to job conditions and pay rates for frontline workers. But as providers listen to those complaints, and in many cases respond to them, the best argument for union representation begins to weaken.

One provider told me late last year that unions were actually becoming easier to work with — and less powerful — because there were fewer reasonable pay and benefit demands to be made. And with less to complain about, it seems, workers may be less inclined to ruffle the feathers of leadership or even seek outside representation if their buildings don’t already have it.

Meanwhile, some states have made it more difficult to organize, as the Washington Post outlined Tuesday. That provides some balance against the Biden administration, which has embraced unions and endorsed their leaders’ wishlists as political marching orders. 

At no time has that been made clearer than when Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra pandered to a prominent national union representing skilled nursing workers, telling them that their “demand” led to a proposed nursing home staffing mandate. 

Currently, about 17% of nursing homes have workers that are represented by a union, though only about 13% of healthcare workers across settings are union members.

Last fall, George Washington University political science professor Adam Dean told McKnight’s the stage is set for more skilled nursing organizing and strikes in 2024. 

“There’s enormous potential for the growth of unions in that sector and I think that the big labor wins that people have been following in the news … set the stage nationally for what’s possible when workers unionize,” he said.

Then again, federal policy has been remarkably welcoming to union disputes over the last three years. A different administration could (and almost certainly would) undermine union power by adopting labor strategies that make membership trends irrelevant.

After all, without friends in high places or a pandemic to give them visibility, even the most well-organized healthcare unions may find themselves shrinking into the background once more.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.