Just in time for Labor Day, a new report reveals the importance of unions to all working people and details how decades of stagnant wages correlate directly with shrinking union membership.
The report, published Aug. 24 by the Economic Policy Institute, suggests that the effects of collective bargaining reverberate around the entire labor market, raising wages for all workers – even those who don’t belong to a union – and improving working conditions.
“Unions raise workers’ wages and strengthen their rights at work, but they also give working people a voice in our democracy,” said EPI President Lawrence Mishel. “We will never again see consistent robust middle-class wage growth or a healthy democracy without first rebuilding collective bargaining.”
The study’s findings show that if union density had remained at 1979 levels, the weekly wages of nonunion men in the private sector would be 5 percent higher today, and the wages for nonunion workers without a college education would be 8 percent higher.
In the same time, the share of income going to the top 10 percent of earners in America has skyrocketed, with high-earners taking home an increasingly large percentage of total income. The spike in this wage disparity, up nearly 60 percent since 1980, correlates closely with the decline in the number of Americans represented by a union.
While workplace productivity has risen steadily over the last several decades, wages have remained flat for working people not among the top 10 percent of earners. “Union decline,” the report says, “can explain one-third of the rise in wage inequality among men and one-fifth of the rise in wage inequality among women” over the last 40 years.
“The lack of collective worker power helps explain why workers’ wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years,” Mishel said, noting that working people are frustrated because they haven’t seen any of the gains of an improving economy.
But as any union brother or sister knows, membership is about far more than just wages.
The EPI report also shows that union workplaces and job sites are far safer than their nonunion counterparts. In 2014, Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections of New York construction sites found twice as many violations on nonunion sites versus union ones.
The safety difference, the authors say, is because unions are able to hold employers accountable in workplaces where they have members and to represent all workers – not just those belonging to a union – before Congress and state legislatures to improve safety standards.
Retirement and benefits are another area where the union difference stands out. More than 94 percent of workers covered by a union contract have access to employer-sponsored health benefits versus just 67 percent on nonunion workers, and union employers pay 77 percent more toward employee health care expenses. Unsurprisingly, unions also boost sick leave, paid vacation and retirement benefits for their members.
“Across the board, the story is the same,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Unions make life better for our members, but they also lift up everyone around them. Growing the number of working people with access to collective bargaining remains the most promising solution to the trend of more and more money going to the privileged few at the top.”
More and more people seem to be recognizing the importance of organized labor – on both sides of the issue.
Employers spend vast sums of money to thwart efforts by their employees to join together. In recent years, nearly three-quarters of employers facing unionization campaigns hire union-busting consultants, and the study shows that nearly one-in-five union organizers can expect to be fired, many times illegally, for their association with the union.
But the opposite side of the equation is promising. EPI notes that there is a recent resurgence in positive feelings toward unions, especially among young people. 55 percent of 18-to-29-year-old workers view unions favorably, and the overall popularity of unions figures to grow as those young workers occupy an ever-larger share of the workforce.
“The future of unions is tied with the economic outlook for all workers, union or not,” Stephenson said. “This Labor Day, I’m grateful for the good work we’re able to do, and I’m committed to continuing to grow and to reach out to working people to offer them a voice in their own futures, just as we’ve done for the last 126 years.”