REPORT: Illinois’ Union Membership Grew Last Year for First Time Since 2017

Membership Declined Over Past Decade; New Organizing Occurring Most for Women and Young Workers; Military Veterans and African American Workers Most Likely to Be Union Members

La Grange, IL: Last year, the number of workers who are union members in both Illinois and Chicago grew for the first time since 2017 and the state’s labor movement had its most successful year of new organizing in the past decade, according to new data compiled by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. However, union membership in Illinois remains below levels from a decade ago.

Read the Report, The State of the Unions 2022: A Profile of Unionization in Chicago, in Illinois, and in the United States.

“While actions by courts and many state legislatures have created headwinds for the labor movement, the historic volatility that has hit our economy these past few years has highlighted the importance of institutions that exist to promote job quality and job stability,” said ILEPI Executive Director and study co-author Frank Manzo IV. “The data shows clear links between union membership and better outcomes for workers, and we are seeing new organizing efforts in the workplace as well as a changing demographic composition of the unionized workforce.”  

Analyzing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor, researchers found that both Chicago and Illinois gained union members last year, even as the number of workers nationally who were represented by unions declined. All three regions have seen an overall decrease in the share of workers who were union members, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 decision—which allows state and local government workers to stop paying for the collective bargaining, legal, and related services that they receive from their unions. This “free-riding” reduces the resources that unions have for collective bargaining and organizing. 

Overall, Illinois’ public sector unionization rate has fallen at nearly double the rate of the private sector during this period. While the data reveal that public sector unionization rate briefly spiked in 2020, researchers noted that this was because nonunion government workers disproportionately exited the labor force or were laid off during the first year of the pandemic. Nonunion state and local government employment fell from 318,000 workers in 2019 to 216,000 workers in 2020 before rebounding somewhat to 291,000 workers in 2021, according to the data.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent labor shortage have brought a heightened awareness to issues like workplace safety, access to healthcare and sick leave, and other core metrics of job quality that have long been associated with collective bargaining,” added University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor, Director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal, and study co-author Dr. Robert Bruno. “We are not only seeing this reflected in historic levels of support for labor unions in national polling, but upticks in unionization amongst private sector workers, younger workers, and women as well as in higher success rates in new union organizing drives.” 

The report notes that Illinois recorded a 60% success rate for new union organizing petitions in 2021, the highest in more than a decade. Illinois workers under 35 years old saw their overall unionization rate grow by as much as 23%, relative to 2018 levels. The unionization rate for women in Illinois has also grown over the last decade.

“There is little doubt that both longer-term issues such as income inequality and more recent phenomena like the global pandemic and rising inflation have caused workers to reconsider their job quality expectations and their bargaining power,” Manzo added. “Unions continue to face the same challenges that existed before the pandemic—outsourcing, automation, legal protections for public sector ‘free riding,’ and employer interference in worker organizing campaigns—but these recent successes are noteworthy.”    

While the report found no difference in unionization rates between Illinois workers residing in rural areas versus urban communities, it did reveal some key trends in the demographics of its unionized workforce.  For example, researchers found that unionization among women was growing but it was declining among men. Black workers (20%) and workers who are military veterans (26%) had the highest rates of unionization in Illinois—and their rates of unionization in Illinois were nearly double the comparable national averages.

At the industry-level, researchers found that public administration, construction, education, healthcare, and similar workers deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic remained the most heavily unionized both nationally and in Illinois. Lower-wage “face-to-face” workers in retail, food service, and hospitality were among the least unionized.

After accounting for all observable factors, researchers concluded that union membership increases hourly earnings by 15% in Illinois and by 11% nationally over comparable nonunion workers. They also noted that union workers have greater access to health insurance coverage and superior workplace safety outcomes.

“While unionization has declined over the past decade in both, the ‘state of the unions’ is stronger in Illinois than the nation as a whole,” concluded Dr. Bruno. “That’s because our state has not passed legislation to weaken collective bargaining rights or impede new organizing activity. The data shows that this choice improves job quality—especially for military veterans, essential workers, African Americans, and women in the workforce. It can also create new pathways into the middle class for younger workers and the most vulnerable face-to-face workers in our economy.”      

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonprofit organization which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families.  

The Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign investigates the working conditions of workers in today’s economy to elevate public discourse aimed at reducing poverty, create more stable forms of employment, and promote middle-class jobs.