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Americans have always joined together—whether in parent teacher associations or local community organizations—to solve problems and make changes that improve their lives and their communities. Through unions, people join together to strive for improvements at the place where they spend a large portion of their waking hours: work.
The freedom of workers to join together in unions and negotiate with employers (in a process known as collective bargaining) is widely recognized as a fundamental human right across the globe. In the United States, this right is protected by the U.S. Constitution and U.S. law and is supported by a majority of Americans.1
Over 16 million working women and men in the United States are exercising this right—these 16 million workers are represented by unions. Overall, more than one in nine U.S. workers are represented by unions. This representation makes organized labor one of the largest institutions in America.2
By providing data on union coverage, activities, and impacts, this report helps explain how unions fit into the economy today; how they affect workers, communities, occupations and industries, and the country at large; and why collective bargaining is essential for a fair and prosperous economy and a vibrant democracy. It also describes how decades of anti-union campaigns and policies have made it much harder for working people to use their collective voice to sustain their standard of living.
‘Collective bargaining’ is how working people gain a voice at work and the power to shape their working lives
Almost everyone has at one point felt unheard or powerless as an employee. Joining a union simply means that you and your colleagues have a say because you negotiate important elements of employment conditions together. That could mean securing wage increases, better access to health care, workplace safety enhancements, and more reasonable and predictable hours. Through collective bargaining negotiations, the union also works with management to develop a process for settling disputes that employees and their managers are unable to settle individually.
Once a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is agreed to, union representatives work with employees and with management to make sure the rights and obligations spelled out in the agreement are honored. And they represent workers in high-stakes situations, such as when a safety violation has resulted in injury. By these means, collective bargaining gives workers a say in the terms of their employment, the security of knowing that there are specific processes for handling work-related grievances, and a path to solving problems.
To cover expenses for negotiating contracts, defending workers’ rights, resolving disputes, and providing support to members of the bargaining unit, unions collect dues.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 and amendments govern private-sector unions and collective bargaining. While states generally have no jurisdiction over private-sector unions, the NLRA as amended does allow states to enact certain laws that govern fees paid by workers in unionized private workplaces (discussed later in this report).
Nearly half (48.1 percent) of workers covered by a union contract are public-sector workers. Collective bargaining among federal workers is covered by the Federal Labor Relations Act of 1978 (FLRA). State laws (enacted from the late 1950s forward) govern state and local government employee unions. Each state has its own set of laws that govern collective bargaining for state and local public employees. Some states allow the full set of collective bargaining rights, others (approximately one-fifth) prohibit collective bargaining, and still others limit some activities, such as the right to strike or the right to collect dues automatically during payroll processing. About one in 10 states have no state law addressing collective bargaining rights in the public sector.3
Union workers are diverse, just like America
The typical union member is often thought to be a worker on a manufacturing line in the Midwest. Manufacturing does have a strong union tradition, but people join unions in many industries and occupations. Union members include dental hygienists in Wisconsin, graduate students in Massachusetts, firefighters in Illinois, television writers and scientists in California, security guards in Washington, D.C., digital journalists in New York, and major league baseball players in Georgia and other states.4
It is also true that, in the past, union workers were predominantly white men. But as of 2016, roughly 10.6 million of the 16.3 million workers covered by a union contract are women and/or people of color.5
- About two-thirds (65.4 percent) of workers age 18 to 64 and covered by a union contract are women and/or people of color.
- Almost half (46.3 percent) are women.
- More than a third (35.8 percent) are black, Hispanic, Asian, or other nonwhite workers.
- Black workers are the most likely to be represented by unions: 14.5 percent of black workers age 18 to 64 are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, compared with 12.5 percent of white workers and 10.1 percent of Hispanic workers.
Unions represent workers of all levels of education
- More than half (54.5 percent) of workers age 18 to 64 and covered by a union contract have an associate degree or more education.
- Two out of five (42.4 percent) have a bachelor’s degree or more education.
Union workers hail from a variety of sectors, but the biggest share work in education or health services
- Nearly two in five workers (39.8 percent) age 18 to 64 and covered by a union contract work in education or health services.
- One in seven workers (13.9 percent) covered by a union contract work in public administration.
- One in eight workers (12.2 percent) covered by a union contract work in transportation and utilities.
- One in 11 workers (9.1 percent) covered by a union contract work in manufacturing.
Unions are most widespread in public administration and transportation industries
Because industries vary in size, industries with the highest numbers of union workers aren’t always the industries with the highest union coverage rate. The five industries with the highest shares of 18- to 64-year-old workers covered by a union contract (the “union coverage rate”) are:
- Public administration (33.2 percent)
- Transportation and utilities (27.3 percent)
- Education and health services (20.0 percent)
- Construction (15.7 percent)
- Information (10.6 percent), which includes publishing, motion pictures, broadcasting, telecommunications, data processing, and other communications services
Unions are thriving in diverse workplaces—including ‘new economy’ workplaces
Working people join unions to have some say over their jobs and their workplaces. Given the self-determination unions afford, it is no surprise that they are thriving in some of the companies, industries, and occupations undergoing the most change.
- Television writers in Hollywood. Streaming services, cable offerings, and multiple viewing platforms are fueling what is referred to as “the New Golden Age of Television.” In 2016 the six major media companies that dominate film and television (CBS, Comcast, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, and Viacom) reported almost $51 billion in operating profits. Those profits have doubled in the last decade and continue to grow. Much of the industry’s success is attributable to the roughly 13,000 men and women who write television shows and films and who belong to the Writers Guild of America. Despite this contribution to the industry’s record profitability, TV writers’ incomes were in decline. WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which represents the studios, networks, and independent producers) recently agreed on a collective bargaining contract that gave writers increases in compensation and digital residuals and preserved broad health care benefits.6
- Graduate students and adjunct faculty working at universities across the country. More than 64,000 graduate student employees are unionized at 28 institutions of higher education in the public sector, including universities in California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington.7 While graduate teaching assistants in some public universities have practiced collective bargaining for nearly 50 years, the law has recently opened up the possibility in private universities: teaching and research assistants for universities such Yale, Brandeis University, Columbia, and Tufts University are now organizing for better compensation and working conditions.8
- Professional and technical employees in the Washington, D.C., region and throughout the United States and Canada. The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) includes more than 80,000 women and men in professional, technical, administrative, and associated occupations in the United States and Canada. Members work for a wide range of federal, public, and private agencies and companies. They include administrative law judges working for the Social Security Administration, scientists working for NASA, engineers and technicians working for General Electric and Boeing, and engineers, architects, and project managers working for Santa Clara County, California. The Economic Policy Institute is one of many unionized Washington-based nonprofits (including the Center for American Progress and DC Jobs With Justice) represented by IFPTE Local 70.9
- United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers, hub workers, pilots, and mechanics. UPS is the country’s largest private-sector, unionized employer. Of 440,000 workers worldwide, nearly 250,000 (mostly drivers and hub workers) are represented by the Teamsters. UPS pilots are represented by the Independent Pilots Association, and UPS mechanics are represented by the International Association of Machinists. According to research firm Brand Keys, UPS is number one in parcel delivery loyalty, ahead of nonunionized FedEx.10
- Maine lobster fishers. The Maine Lobstering Union formed in 2013 after a glut in the spring of 2012 that drove the “boat price” for lobster down about 33 percent to a 20-year low. It was the first fishing union in Maine in more than 75 years. While people who fish for a living in Canada and off the Washington and Alaska coasts have been organized for years, the 500-member Maine Lobstering Union seeks to close the growing gap between what consumers pay to eat lobster and what lobster fishers get. So the union is buying a wholesale lobster business. Union lobster fishers who sell to the union co-op will get market price for their lobster but also a share of cooperative profits.11
- Cafeteria and other contract workers in Silicon Valley. In July 2017, more than 500 cafeteria workers who serve food at Facebook’s Menlo Park, California, campus joined Local 19 of UNITE HERE, a labor union of more than 265,000 hotel, food service, laundry, warehouse, and casino workers in the United States and Canada. The Facebook cafeteria workers cannot afford housing in the extremely high-cost Bay Area and are seeking higher wages and more affordable health benefits from their employer, Flagship Facility Services. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “thousands of contract workers such as janitors, security guards, and shuttle bus drivers at other major Silicon Valley tech firms, including Apple, Intel, and Google,” have already unionized. The effort to unionize these workers is being led by Working Partnerships USA and the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council but counts other faith, community, and labor groups (including Communications Workers of America, Teamsters, and the Service Employees International Union) as partners.12
- Digital journalists. The changing media landscape has been a recent catalyst for newsrooms to organize. Since 2014, editorial employees at many media outlets—including In These Times, Vice, Gizmodo Media Group (formerly Gawker Media), Salon, The American Prospect, Fusion, The Root, and ThinkProgress—have formed unions. The Huffington Post, for example, ratified a contract in January 2017 that has provisions addressing editorial independence, the need to enhance newsroom diversity, comp time, discipline and dismissal policies, and severance in the event of layoffs.13
Unions strengthen democracy by giving workers a voice in policy debates
Managers, business owners, and CEOs organize to advocate for their economic interests. That’s what chambers of commerce, business associations, and national trade associations do. Unions provide working people who are not executives or company owners with an opportunity to get their voices heard in policy debates that shape their lives.
Americans have a constitutionally protected right to associate and ask for change. Americans join together to change speed limits, school policy, laws governing gun ownership and drug possession and use, and more. And when Americans have wanted to make the economy fairer and more responsive to the needs of workers, they have traditionally joined together in unions to do so.
Unions fought for—and work to strengthen—many of the humane standards and norms that protect and uplift Americans today. These essential laws and programs include Social Security, child labor laws, antidiscrimination laws, health and safety laws, Unemployment Insurance, compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, the 40-hour workweek, and the federal minimum wage.14 Unions were a major force behind all the Great Society laws on discrimination, housing, and voting rights.
As union coverage has declined and the voice of workers has correspondingly diminished, many of the key workplace standards past generations counted on have been eroded. For instance, there has been an erosion of overtime pay protection, slashing of workers’ compensation programs, and a decline in the real value of the minimum wage, which is lower now than it was in 1968.15
Unions reduce inequality and are essential for low- and middle-wage workers’ ability to obtain a fair share of economic growth
The spread of collective bargaining that followed the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 led to decades of faster and fairer economic growth that persisted until the late 1970s. But since the 1970s, declining unionization has fueled rising inequality and stalled economic progress for the broad American middle class. Figures A and B show that when unions are weak, the highest incomes go up even more, but when unions are strong, middle incomes go up.
Research by EPI and other institutions shows this correlation is no accident. First, unions have strong positive effects not only on the wages of union workers but also on the wages of comparable nonunion workers, as unions set standards for entire industries and occupations (these union and nonunion wage boosts are explored in detail in the next section of this report). Second, unions make wages among occupations more equal because they give a larger wage boost to low- and middle-wage occupations than to high-wage occupations. Third, unions make wages of workers with similar characteristics more equal because of the standards unions set. Fourth, unions have historically been more likely to organize middle-wage than high-wage workers, which lowers inequality by closing gaps between, say, blue-collar and white-collar workers. Finally, the union wage boost is largest for low-wage workers and larger at the middle than at the highest wage levels, larger for black and Hispanic workers than for white workers, and larger for those with lower levels of education—wage increases for these groups help narrow wage inequalities.16
We know how big a force for equality unions are by looking at how much their decline has contributed to inequality between middle- and high-wage workers: union decline can explain one-third of the rise in wage inequality among men and one-fifth of the rise in wage inequality among women from 1973 to 2007. Among men, the erosion of collective bargaining has been the largest single factor driving a wedge between middle- and high-wage workers.17
Unions raise wages for both union and nonunion workers
For typical workers, hourly pay growth has been sluggish for decades, rising 0.3 percent per year or 9.9 percent in all from 1979 to 2015. If pay had risen with productivity during that period, as it did in the decades before 1979, pay would have gone up 63.8 percent.18 But pay for typical workers is not rising at this clip because ever-larger shares of economic growth are going to the highest wage earners. Income growth for the highest 1 percent of wage earners rose by nearly 190 percent between 1979 and 2015, meaning that the highest-earning 1 percent have claimed a radically disproportionate share of income growth.19
Working people in unions use their power in numbers to secure a fairer share of the income they create. Employers who have to bargain with workers collectively cannot pursue a strategy of “divide and conquer” among their workers. Workers who are empowered by forming a union raise wages for union and nonunion workers alike. As an economic sector becomes more unionized, nonunion employers pay more to retain qualified workers and norms of higher pay and better conditions become standard. For example, if a union hospital is across town from a nonunion hospital and the two hospitals are competing for workers, then the nonunion workers will benefit from the presence of the union hospital.
- Union workers earn more. On average, a worker covered by a union contract earns 13.2 percent more in wages than a peer with similar education, occupation, and experience in a nonunionized workplace in the same sector.20 This pay boost was even greater in earlier decades when more American workers were unionized.21
- Unions also raise pay for workers by helping to enforce labor standards, like guarding against wage theft. Union workers are more knowledgeable about their rights, and union representatives communicate when needed with government enforcement agencies, which enhances enforcement of wage violations. For example, workers covered by a union are half as likely to be the victims of minimum wage violations (i.e., to be paid an effective hourly rate that is below the minimum wage). This form of wage theft is costing workers over $15 billion a year, causing many families to fall below the poverty line.22
- When union density is high, nonunion workers benefit from higher wages. When the share of workers who are union members is relatively high, as it was in 1979, wages of nonunion workers are higher. For example, had union density remained at its 1979 level, weekly wages of nonunion men in the private sector would be 5 percent higher (that’s an additional $2,704 in earnings for year-round workers), while wages for nonunion men in the private sector without a college education would be 8 percent, or $3,016 per year, higher. (These estimates look at what wages would have been in 2013 had union density remained at its 1979 levels).23
- Where unions remain strong, unions have an ability to raise wages sector-wide. An example is the hospitality industry in Orlando, Florida. Negotiations between six local affiliates of the Services Trade Council Union (STCU) and Disney World in 2014 led to wage increases for union members to at least $10 an hour starting in 2016. These local affiliates represent housekeepers, lifeguards, cast members, and other service workers. Disney then extended the raises to all its 70,000 Orlando employees, including nonunion employees. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the wage increases prompted much of Orlando’s hospitality and retail sector, including Westgate Resorts, to raise wages.24
- Where unions are strong, wages are higher for typical workers—union and nonunion members alike. Compensation of typical (median) workers grows far faster—four times faster—in states with the smallest declines in unionization than it does in states with the largest declines in unionization.25
- Unions bring living wages to low-wage jobs. Unions have transformed once-low-wage jobs in hospitality, nursing, and janitorial services into positions with living wages and opportunities for advancement. For example, after unionizing, dishwashers in Las Vegas hotels made $4 per hour more than the national average for that job, and they were offered excellent benefits. And hospitality workers in unionized Las Vegas enjoy a much higher living standard than those in Reno, where unions are weaker. In Houston, a 2006 first-ever union contract for 5,300 janitors resulted in a 47 percent pay increase and an increase in guaranteed weekly hours of work.26
By joining together, working people can transform not just their workplaces but sectors and communities. Here are two examples of how today’s workers are using their “power in numbers” to raise wages in the workplace and for all working people:
- Raising the minimum wage for food service and other low-wage workers. Millions of Americans who work full time are not paid enough to make ends meet; many rely on public assistance, including food stamps, housing subsidies, or cash assistance to pay their bills. Food preparers, for example, earn a median hourly wage of $9.09; home health aides earn $10.87. A big reason that low-wage workers are struggling is the erosion of the value of the federal minimum wage, which, at $7.25 per hour, is worth 25 percent less in inflation-adjusted terms than it was 50 years ago. The Service Employees International Union was an early and critical backer and remains a strong supporter of the Fight for $15, a campaign to raise wages for low-wage workers by enacting minimum wages increases in communities and states around the nation. Begun in New York and Chicago in 2012, the campaign has led to laws establishing $15 minimum wages in New York, California, the District of Columbia, and 21 cities and counties. The Fight for $15 movement has also added momentum to successful campaigns for smaller minimum wage increases in 18 other states since 2014. (Through the campaign, some workers are also seeking paid sick time so that all workers, regardless of their job or wage level, can take paid time off when they are sick or need to care for a family member.) While many business owners have endorsed minimum wage increases, business owners who oppose raising the minimum wage have a voice too, through such groups as the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals against minimum wage increases and paid sick days.27
- Eliminating subminimum wages for farmworkers. In June 2017, Familias Unidas por La Justicia (FUJ) and Sakuma Brothers Berry Farm, one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest berry growers, signed a collective bargaining agreement that ensures good wages for the more than 500 immigrant farmworkers who harvest berries at the farm. The contract ensures that the berry pickers—many of whom had been earning less than the state minimum wage of $9.47 an hour under the former piece-rate system (based on how many pounds of berries they picked)—now earn at least a minimum wage of $12; the revised piece-rate system it establishes seeks to deliver an average wage of $15 an hour. The contract is the culmination of four years of organizing, first as a workers organization and then as a recognized independent union in September 2016. Through strikes, informational pickets, and other efforts, FUJ gained national support for its successful efforts to change a host of practices at the farm, including 12-hour-plus workdays. FUJ also countered Sakuma Brothers’ attempt in 2014 to replace its workforce with workers entering the United States under the H-2A temporary visa program.28
Unions help raise wages for women and lessen racial wage gaps
Unions help raise the wages of women and black and Hispanic workers—whose wages have historically lagged behind those of white men—by establishing pay “transparency” (workers know what other workers are making), correcting salary discrepancies, establishing clearer terms for internal processes such as raises and promotions, and helping workers who have been discriminated against achieve equity.
Unions also narrow the racial wage gaps. Black workers, for example, are more likely than white workers to be in a union and are more likely to be low- and middle-wage workers, who get a bigger pay boost for being in a union than do higher-wage workers. This effect is an important tool in closing the black–white wage gap, which has actually grown somewhat since 1979, largely due to growth in the gap since 2000—while wages since 2000 have stagnated for both black and white workers, the decline in wage growth has been larger for black workers.29 Today, black workers are, on average, paid 85 cents for every dollar paid to white workers of the same gender and with similar education, experience, and location of residence.30
- Unions help raise women’s pay. Hourly wages for women represented by unions are 9.2 percent higher on average than for nonunionized women with comparable characteristics.31
- Unions raise wages in the female-dominated service occupations. Union-represented workers in service occupations (which include food service and janitorial services) make 87.0 percent more in total compensation and 56.1 percent more in wages than their nonunion counterparts.32
- Unions help close wage gaps for black and Hispanic workers. Black and Hispanic workers get a larger boost from unionization than their white counterparts. Black workers, both male and female, are more likely than white workers to be covered by collective bargaining and the wage boost they get from being covered by collective bargaining is above average. The result is that collective bargaining lifts wages of black workers closer to those of their white counterparts. Hispanic workers have slightly lower union coverage than white workers but have much higher union wage advantages: thus wage gaps between Hispanic workers and their white counterparts are also smaller because of collective bargaining.33
- Unionized black workers earn even more in some sectors. Unionized black construction workers in New York City earn 36.1 percent more than nonunion black construction workers in New York City.34
These data showing that unions raise wages for all workers—and especially for women and black and Hispanic workers—do not erase the problematic historical episodes of sexism and racism practiced by unions. Unions are an American institution, and like nearly every other American institution their past includes clear instances of gender and racial discrimination. But there has been significant progress in increasing the shares of women represented by unions and in union leadership. There has also been significant progress in the racial integration of unions and in ensuring that nonwhite workers have equitable access to apprenticeships, as illustrated by the progress in New York City construction unions.35 AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently claimed, with justification, that “the labor movement is the most integrated institution in America.”36 Labor leaders are calling for broad and sustained attention to addressing racism and sexism where they continue to violate labor’s democratic ideals.37
Unions improve the health and safety practices of workplaces
More than 4,800 workers are killed on the job every year. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 more die of occupational diseases each year, and the estimated number of work-related injuries and illnesses exceeds 7 million.38 Unions have always championed worker safety by investing in programs to educate workers about on-the-job hazards and working with employers to reduce worker injuries and the time lost due to injury.39 In unionized workplaces, workers generally have a right to involve a union representative in injury and fatality investigations, which gives workers a voice in their own safety. And researchers have suggested that unions create safer workplaces; because union workers are protected by their union from repercussions for reporting safety issues, they are more likely to report not only injuries but near misses. This increased reporting can lead to a reduction in work hazards.40 The union contribution to safety is particularly important because government health and safety regulations are being weakened.41
- Union construction sites are safer for workers. In 2014, OSHA inspected New York state construction sites and found twice as many health and safety violations at nonunion construction sites as at union construction sites.42 Another study, of Missouri construction sites, found higher levels of OSHA violations among nonunion St. Louis residential construction job sites than at unionized St. Louis residential job sites.43
- Mine workers in union mines are less likely to be severely injured or die on the job. Unionization is associated with a substantial and statistically significant drop in traumatic injuries and in fatalities in underground bituminous coal mines from 1993 to 2010.44
- Unions ensure that employers are held accountable. Tragedies arise when employers cannot be held accountable. Miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia tried and failed to a join a union three times, according to In These Times. Each time, at least 65 percent of the miners signed cards saying they wanted to be members of a union. And each time, these workers were repeatedly intimidated by management at Massey Energy, which owns the mine: Massey CEO Don Blankenship delayed the election process for months while he threatened to close the mine if the workers voted for a union—and the workers ended up voting against joining a union to save their jobs.45 On April 5, 2010, an explosion collapsed the mine’s roof, killing 29 miners and injuring two. In the aftermath, reports surfaced that the nonunion mine had a record of safety violations and that coal miners who worked in the mine knew about the dangerous working conditions. Blankenship was found guilty on a charge of conspiracy to willfully violate mine health and safety standards and was sentenced to a year in prison.46
Here are some specific ways unions have improved safety in the workplace by representing workers’ concerns in public and testifying before Congress and state legislatures:
- Nurses win violence prevention standards. In the past decade or so, the rate of reported violence against health care workers (who make up 9 percent of the nation’s workforce) has more than doubled. The increase stems from cuts in state funds for mental health services and hospital budget cutbacks thinning the ranks of nurses and security guards. National Nurses United (NNU), which represents more than 160,000 nurses across the country, has fought for and won workplace violence prevention standards in California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. NNU is now petitioning the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a formal workplace violence prevention standard that would apply nationwide.47
- Laborers, autoworkers, and others secure protections for workers from deadly silica dust. Roughly 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica dust, which causes silicosis (an incurable and often deadly lung disease), lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, and kidney disease. Silica dust is produced by grinding stone or masonry in mines or on construction sites. Although the hazards of silica dust have been known for at least a century, existing regulations limiting exposure were outdated and were not keeping up with worker exposure to silica in new industries such as stone countertop fabrication and hydraulic fracturing. A broad section of the labor movement—including the United Automobile Workers and the Laborers’ International Union of North America—helped persuade OSHA to issue a new rule that reduces workers’ exposure to silica.48
- Firefighters get relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Firefighters who develop PTSD after witnessing repeated trauma on the job don’t always have recourse if the disorder means they cannot work while they seek treatment. When independent studies showed that post-traumatic stress rates are on the rise for Texas firefighters, the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters (TSAFF) launched an education campaign for state lawmakers leading to legislation to improve workers’ compensation coverage for Texas first responders diagnosed with line-of-duty-related PTSD. The legislation (HB 1983) was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott on June 1, 2017.49
Unions support strong families with better benefits and due process
About six in 10 adults (63 percent) say the average working person in the United States has less job security now than 20 or 30 years ago.50 And the lack of paid sick days is depriving many workers of funds needed for basic necessities—an especially difficult problem for the lowest-wage workers, about three-fourths of whom don’t get any paid sick days.51 Uncertain work hours, last-minute shift changes, and other scheduling practices are also hurting families. And research shows that jobs that are insecure, unpredictable, and risky also affect communities and society as a whole.52
But working people in unionized workplaces are more likely to have benefits that strengthen families and improve job security and predictability. (Some of the items in the list below provide union–nonunion comparisons not adjusted for personal characteristics and other factors, while some, where indicated, provide adjusted comparisons.53)
- Union workers are more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance. More than nine in 10—94 percent—of workers covered by a union contract have access to employer-sponsored health benefits, compared with just 67 percent of nonunion workers. When adjustments are made for other characteristics that may affect benefits coverage—such as sector (public or private), industry, region, employee status (full- or part-time), and establishment size—union workers are 18.3 percent more likely to be covered.
- Union employers contribute more to their health care benefits. Union employers pay 77.4 percent more (per hour worked) toward their employees’ health coverage (providing better benefits for a greater share of workers) than comparable nonunion employers. Occupations with higher-than-average union impact on employer-provided health care include transportation, services, construction, extraction, and installation/maintenance/repair.
- Union workers have greater access to paid sick days. Almost nine in 10—87 percent—of workers covered by a union contract have access to paid sick days, compared with 69 percent of nonunion workers. Almost all—97 percent—of union workers in state and local government have paid sick days, compared with 86 percent of their nonunion peers. In the private sector, 79 percent of union workers have paid sick days compared with 67 percent of their nonunion peers.
- Union workers are more likely to have paid vacation and holidays. In the private sector, 89 percent of workers covered by a union contract get paid vacation and paid holidays, whereas 75 percent of nonunion workers get paid vacation and 76 percent get paid holidays. For workers overall (private and public), 80 percent of union workers get paid holidays while 75 percent of nonunion workers do. Equal shares of union and nonunion workers (74 percent) get paid vacation.54 When adjustments are made for other characteristics that may affect benefits coverage—such as sector (public or private), industry, region, employee status (full- or part-time), and establishment size—union workers are 3.2 percent more likely to have paid leave.
- Employers contribute more to paid vacation and holidays for union workers than nonunion workers. Union employers contribute 11.4 percent more toward paid vacation and holidays for their workers than do comparable nonunion employers. Industries and occupations with higher-than-average employer contributions toward paid vacation and holidays include production, transportation, office and administrative support, service occupations, and construction.
- Unions provide due process. Private employment in every state except for Montana is generally at will, with employers free to dismiss workers for almost any reason, except for reasons specified by law (e.g., on account of race, religion, disability, or other identities that are protected classes). Union contracts have provisions that allow workers to be fired, but only when the employer shows a proper, documented performance-related reason for dismissing the worker. Usually, contracts include a transparent process for disciplining workers, and the employer—except in extreme cases—must follow that process and give a worker a chance to improve performance before the employer moves to dismiss the worker.
- Union workers have more input into the number of hours they work. Almost half (46 percent) of nonunion workers say they have little or no input into the number of hours they work each week, compared with less than a quarter (22 percent) of union workers.55
- Union workers get more advance notice of their work schedules. More than one in three workers (34.4 percent) who belong to a union get at least a week’s advance notice of their work schedules, whereas less than one in four nonunion workers (23.2 percent) do. (These calculations exclude workers whose schedules never change.)56
Unions also bring better benefits to the broader labor force. Here is a specific example of how unions have helped secure crucial benefits for workers by taking their concerns to the lawmakers and to the public at large:
- Winning paid sick days for workers. There is no federal law that ensures all workers are able to earn paid sick days in the United States. For workers who fall ill or whose families depend on them to provide care in the event of an illness, this means sick days can be incredibly costly. This is a particular problem for low-wage workers, 73 percent of whom have no opportunity to earn paid sick days. Unions have participated in coalitions to enact paid sick days laws. For example, voter outreach by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) helped win passage of a paid sick days law in Oregon, while SEIU was a key player in enacting the nation’s strongest paid sick days policy, in Massachusetts.57
Unions are good for workers’ retirement security
Few Americans have enough to live on in retirement. A key part of the story of rising retirement income insecurity is a shift from traditional defined-benefit (DB) pensions that provide a guaranteed income to defined-contribution (DC) plans—401(k)s or similar plans—that force workers to bear investment risk without providing any guarantees.58 The shift from pensions to 401(k)s has also exacerbated inequality, benefiting some very wealthy families but leaving the vast majority unprepared for retirement. Nearly half of all families headed by an adult age 32–61 have zero retirement savings.59
Union members have an advantage in retirement security, both because union members are more likely to have retirement benefits and because, when they do, the benefits are better than what comparable nonunion workers receive: union members are more likely to have pensions, and employer contributions to the plans (whether pensions or DC plans) tend to be higher.
- Ninety percent of union workers participate in a retirement plan (of any kind), compared with 75 percent of nonunion workers.
- Seventy-four percent of union workers who have pensions participate in a traditional defined benefit pension, compared with 15 percent of nonunion workers.60
- Traditional defined benefit pensions are especially important to black workers, who derive more than a fifth of their household income from these pensions in retirement.61
- Union employers (when adjustments are made for various employer characteristics) are 22.5 percent more likely to offer an employer-provided retirement plan and, on average, to spend 56 percent more on retirement for their employees than do comparable nonunion employers.62
Unions create a path to sharing knowledge and solving problems
Because they are on the front lines, working people often have some of the best information on how to improve their workplaces and make their workplaces safer and more productive. Unions provide the means for workers to share their knowledge about what works and what doesn’t—without fear of retaliation. Unionized workplaces also provide their workers with more transparency about company finances and processes that can help shape responses to problems.
Here are a few examples of specific ways unions have sought to improve their workplaces:
- Shifting from teacher punishment to professional development. The Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) system created by the Toledo Federation of Teachers (TFT) in the early 1980s transformed teacher evaluation and professional development in Toledo and subsequently spread to other cities and counties in Ohio and throughout the country, including Boston; Rochester, New York; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Montgomery County, Maryland. Under the PAR program, new teachers—and experienced teachers who have been struggling—work with “consulting teachers” who provide mentoring and evaluation. Only after that process do principals get involved in evaluation. Veteran teachers may be referred to the program or seek it out on their own. Districts that have adopted PAR say that it strengthens instruction, increases teacher leadership, and helps strengthen the relationship between the district and the teachers union.63
- Training manufacturing workers in new technology skills. Labor unions and the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute have been key partners in implementing a program that trains workers to operate more technical and highly specialized manufacturing processes. The Industrial Manufacturing Technicians (IMT) apprenticeship program began in Milwaukee and is expanding across eight states. The program, operated by the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP)/BIG STEP, provides workers with 2,700 hours of on-the-job training and 260 hours with technical college instructors. Labor union partners include the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and the United Steelworkers (USW). “Union support ensures that the firm-specific design of the program is responsive to worker feedback as well as to lessons learned from IMT programs at other employers that the union covers.”64
- Ending quotas that force bank workers to sell exploitive loans. More than 15,000 U.S. bank workers for Spain-based Santander Bank are trying to create the first bank workers’ union in the United States (bank unions are widespread in other developed countries). Among Santander workers’ goals is to end quotas that force workers to hawk subprime auto loans and other exploitative loans to customers—often people of color and neighbors in their communities—without being able to properly explain the terms of those loans.65 While there has been no election petition filed for Santander Bank yet, Santander workers have brought attention to what has been a problem for American consumers. By forming unions and gaining a seat at the table, financial services employees could help end predatory practices like those engaged in by Wells Fargo Bank in recent years.66
Workers still want unions but are being thwarted by aggressive campaigns and lobbying that have eroded private-sector union membership
Almost half (48 percent) of workers polled said they’d vote to create a union in their workplace tomorrow if they got the chance.67 But workers are being deprived of that opportunity. Because unions and collective bargaining are effective at giving workers power, they are opposed by corporate interests and policymakers representing the highest-earning 1 percent.68 For decades, fierce corporate opposition has suppressed the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively in the private sector by promoting anti-union campaigns in workplaces seeking to unionize and by lobbying lawmakers to pass laws depriving private-sector unions of funds needed to operate. This activity has tracked the dramatic, rapid increase of corporate political activity that began in the mid-1970s, with a specific “call-to-arms” for U.S. corporations that quadrupled the number of corporate PACs from 1976 to 1980.69 More recently, anti-union lobbyists have passed legislation weakening unions in states such as Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin that were once union strongholds.70 Outdated labor laws have failed to provide workers with protection from this employer onslaught against collective bargaining. And corporate lobbyists have blocked reforms to labor laws that would protect workers’ collective bargaining rights with meaningful penalties for violations and better processes for organizing. Employers are exploiting loopholes, including by misclassifying workers as independent contractors to get around labor laws that protect employees.
By going after union funding, employer interests and their allied lawmakers can wipe out one of the crucial pillars of support for pro-worker candidates and causes. If unions have fewer members, or if the law hamstrings unions’ ability to collect administrative fees from the workers they represent, there will be less union money spent on advocating for workers in general. As Gordon Lafer, associate professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, notes, “The labor movement serves as the primary political counterweight to the corporate agenda on a long list of issues that are not per se labor-related. To the extent that unions can be removed as a politically meaningful force, the rest of the agenda becomes much easier to execute.”71
These strategies have been effective, as is evident in the differing trends in unionization between private-sector and public-sector workers. Until very recently, public-sector employers have been far less engaged in trying to block unionization efforts than their private-sector counterparts. Just 6.4 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, down from about 35 percent in the 1950s and about 25 percent in the early 1970s. In contrast, 34.4 percent of public-sector workers belong to a union, up from at or slightly above 10 percent in the 1950s. Overall, 10.7 percent of workers belong to a union, down from about 35 percent in the mid-1950s.72Figure C shows the dramatic decline in private-sector unionization since the 1970s.
Employers often fight unionizing efforts with aggression and intimidation, using legal and illegal tactics
Not all employers oppose unions. Some unions featured in this report were voluntarily recognized by employers, and some led campaigns in which the employer provided union organizers with free access to employees.73
But often, when private-sector workers seek to organize and bargain collectively, employers hire union avoidance consultants to orchestrate and roll out anti-union campaigns. Intense and aggressive anti-union campaigns—once confined to the most anti-union employers—have become widespread, leading to a “coercive and punitive climate for organizing that goes unrestrained due to a fundamentally flawed regulatory regime that neither protects [workers’] rights nor provides any disincentives for employers to continue disregarding the law.”74 While the National Labor Relations Act, which governs private-sector collective bargaining, makes it illegal for employers to intimidate, coerce, or fire workers involved in union-organizing campaigns, the penalties are insufficient to provide a serious economic disincentive for such behavior.75 And many of the tactics that are illegal on paper can be actively pursued because verbal, veiled threats without a paper trail or explicit language connecting the threat to the union effort are difficult to prove and thus prosecute. Finally, the Department of Labor is working to repeal a rule that prohibits employers from keeping the work of anti-union consultants a secret.76
- Three-quarters or more of private employers facing unionization hire union avoidance consultants to quash the union campaign, sometimes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.77 Employer tactics may include one-on-one meetings with supervisors, mandatory employee meetings (also known as “captive audience” meetings), videos, and leaflets. Often consultants work behind the scenes to craft the message that management delivers. The communication strategy typically warns employees that the union will just charge dues and fines without delivering raises or other benefits; will make employees strike; will take years to deliver a contract; and will generally interfere in the employment relationship. Because employers can bar pro-union workers from speaking at mandatory meetings, management can make the case against unions without being challenged.78 The campaign against a union-organizing attempt at the lifestyle media site Thrillist is a classic example of the types of misleading arguments used by employers: anti-union messaging argued that that the union would come between management and employees, would silence employees by making them talk only through union representatives, would make promises it could not keep, and would prevent employers from giving wage increases.79
- From the 1990s to the early 2000s, the likelihood of private employers using 10 or more tactics in their anti-union campaigns doubled, and the focus on more coercive and punitive tactics—designed to intensely monitor and punish union activity—increased.80
- One-in-five to one-in-seven union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign.81 Roughly a third of employers (34 percent) fire workers during campaigns.82
Union membership and share of income going to the top 10 percent, 1917–2015
|Year||Union membership||Share of income going to the top 10 percent|
The data underlying the figure.
The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.
Sources: Data on union density follows the composite series found in Historical Statistics of the United States; updated to 2015 from unionstats.com. Income inequality (share of income to top 10 percent) data are from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913–1998,” Quarterly Journal of Economics vol. 118, no. 1 (2003) and updated data from the Top Income Database, updated June 2016.
Union membership rate and share of income going to the middle 60 percent of families, 1917–2013
|Union membership rate||Share of overall income received by middle 60 percent|
The data underlying the figure.
The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.
Sources: Data on union density follow the composite series found in Historical Statistics of the United States; updated to 2013 from unionstats.com. Data on the middle 60 percent's share of income are from U.S. Census Bureau Historical Income Tables (Table F-2).
Private-sector unionization has declined as a direct result of anti-union policies: Union coverage rates by sector, 1973–2016
|Private sector||Public sector|
The data underlying the figure.
The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.
Note: Coverage rates are based on data for all workers age 16 and up.
Source: EPI analysis of data from the Union Membership and Coverage Database (unionstats.com), compiled by Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson (posted February 11, 2017)