‘Surge’ in organization efforts has Illinois labor leaders optimistic for the future
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – As workers in Illinois celebrate Labor Day, a new report shows there has been a surge in efforts to organize labor unions in workplaces throughout the state, while overall public approval of labor unions nationally is the highest in nearly six decades.
In 2022, there were 72 successful petitions to organize labor unions in Illinois, which represent 9,600 new unionized workers, the highest single-year numbers at any point in the last decade.
That’s according to The State of the Unions 2023, an annual report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a think tank with strong ties to organized labor, and the Center for Middle Class Revival at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
After decades of declining union membership and declining unionization rates, U of I’s Robert Bruno, a coauthor of the report, said those numbers may signal a resurgence in the labor movement.
“That's kind of a leading indicator of an upsurge, of growth in the movement,” Bruno said in an interview. “And if you look at where you're seeing organizing happening – in a lot of growth sectors with larger numbers of employees – then you see the kinds of conditions for increasing the actual density of the labor movement.”
While the rate of unionized workers in Illinois had increased in 2020 – followed by a boost of nearly 16,000 new unionized workers the following year – the state saw declines in both metrics in the past year, according to the report. That continued the downward trend in unionization in the last decade. In 2022, there were 734,430 unionized workers in Illinois, which represented 13.1 percent of the state’s total workforce.
The report attributes that to a shift in the state’s economy away from manufacturing and other unionized sectors toward more service- and knowledge-based industries with low unionization rates. It also cites a large number of vacancies in federal, state and local government positions, which make up the bulk of union membership.
The authors also attribute some of that to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case, Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which struck down an Illinois law that required public employees who chose not to join the union representing their shop to nevertheless pay a portion of their union dues known as “fair share” or “agency fees.” Those fees covered a portion of the union’s costs for collective bargaining.
“State and local government vacancies increased 78 percent following Janus as wages in the public sector failed to keep pace with those in the private sector,” said ILEPI’s Frank Manzo IV, the other coauthor of the report. “And in Illinois, unfilled positions at public school districts rose 164 percent. And Illinois also had thousands of vacant state local government jobs and in 2022 … So it's the labor shortage that's in part caused by the Janus decision because workers are dissatisfied with pay in the public sector.”
Statewide, public sector union membership has fallen by about 24,000, or 3.3 percent, since the Janus decision and now averages around 334,000.
Still, the report notes, Illinois’ unionization rate of 13.1 percent of its workforce is significantly higher than the national average of 10.1 percent. Nationwide, however, total union membership grew in 2022 to nearly 14.3 million workers, the first time that has happened since 2017.
The report cites an August 2022 Gallup poll that found 71 percent of Americans say they approve of labor unions, up from 68 percent the year before and the highest union approval rating Gallup had recorded since 1965.
The demographics of union membership have also been changing, with younger workers aged 25-34 making up a larger share of the total. Since 2019, that age group saw a 2.3 percentage point increase in unionization. By contrast, there were declines in unionization among workers aged 35-44 and older workers over 65.
Unionization rates were highest among people with master’s degrees but lowest among people with less than a high school diploma as well as people with professional or doctorate degrees.
The top four industries by unionization rates were public administration, construction, transportation and utilities, and the combined educational and health services industry.
The report notes that the manufacturing workforce, historically a leader in industrial unionization, is now only 8.8 percent organized in Illinois.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.