By Jacob Passy
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
As the influence of U.S. labor unions has waned over the last half-century, inequality in American life has increased.
Today, only 11% of American workers are covered by unions, which is a sharp contrast from the 1950s when a third of the U.S. workforce was unionized or in a job represented by a union, according to a new report released Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Unions have weakened in recent years thanks to corporate efforts to quash them and right-to-work legislation.
Union workers these days earn on average 13.2% more than non-unionized workers with similar education and experience in the same sector and, according to the report, the pay differential would be even greater if union membership were higher.
If these trends were to reverse, middle- and working-class Americans would stand to reap the benefits, even if they weren’t in a union, the researchers contend.
“The erosion of unions has been especially damaging for the growth of middle-class wages,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute and one of the report’s co-authors. “If you want to boost wage for the middle you have to rebuild the collective bargaining.”
Of course, unionization may not be a fool-proof counter to rising income inequality. As opponents of collective bargaining point out, initiation fees and labor union dues take a bite out of workers’ paychecks. And because of higher wages, plants that become unionized can become less competitive — some employers argue there’s a chance these sites would be closed and moved overseas.
But it’s not just union members who would benefit. “Nonunion employers mimic the wages and benefits of employers in the union sector because they are afraid of losing employees,” Mishel said. “So when unions became weak, it also undercut the wages of nonunion workers.”
If union membership rates were still at the level they were in 1979, then nonunion men in the private sector would be earning 5% higher wages, according to the report. And the median compensation has grown four times faster in states where union membership has remained strongest compared to wages in states with the largest decreases in membership.
The changing face of unions also means that women and people of color would benefit greatly from the resurgence in collective bargaining. Roughly 65% of workers covered by a union contract are women or people of color. Additionally, black workers are more likely to be represented by a union (14.5%) than white (12.5%) or Hispanic workers (10.1%).