Americans are working longer and harder for increasingly shrinking wages for a lot of reasons — but one of the most important is the decades-long decline in labor union membership, according to a study (PDF) published Wednesday by a non-partisan economic think tank.
The study found that union membership stood at 26.7 percent in 1973, but fell to just 13.1 percent in 2011. During that same period, wages paid to working people hit an all-time low as a percentage of the economy, even as corporate profits and executive pay set records.
Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) determined that union workers in 2011 still earn significantly more than non-union workers, with men gaining a union premium wage that’s 17.3 percent more than non-union peers. Women see a smaller but still significant benefit from union membership as well, tending to earn 9.1 percent more than non-union counterparts.
The study also found that unions have a profound impact on whether workers have health insurance and pensions, noting that a full 83.5 percent of unionized workers had health insurance, versus 62 percent of non-union workers. Additionally, 71.9 percent of union members had pensions in 2011, though just 43.8 percent of non-union workers shared that privilege.
Another interesting caveat: EPI said that not only do unions raise wages, pensions and the number of people with health insurance, they also reduce inequality among ethnic minorities. Hispanic and black men were the two groups to benefit most from union membership in 2011, with black men seeing a 17.3 percent premium over non-union peers and hispanic men seeing a 23.1 percent premium.
Other groups that tend to earn significantly more thanks to unions include people who did not graduate from college, people who did not graduate from high school and new immigrants to the U.S.
Researchers conclude by restating as fact what so many have opined in the past: The evidence proves that unions empower workers, and without them the little guy has no real leverage to negotiate with employers.
“This reduction [in union membership] has limited the number of jobs with union wage and benefit premiums; weakened workers’ power to bargain for higher wages, more comprehensive benefits, and better working conditions; and limited the ‘spillover effect’ wherein non-unionized firms raise wages and benefits to compete with unionized firms for workers,” they wrote.
“Together with other laissez-faire policies such as globalization, deregulation, and lower labor standards such as a weaker minimum wage, deunionization has strengthened the hands of employers and undercut the ability of low- and middle-wage workers to have good jobs and economic security… Given unions’ important role in setting standards for both union and nonunion workers, we must ensure that every worker has access to collective bargaining.”
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