Returning Union Membership To The 1980 Level Would Increase Middle-Class Incomes By $1,532 Per Year

Republican governors in several states, as well as Republican lawmakers at the federal level, have sought to bust and restrict unions while setting barriers for those workers who want to unionize ever higher, in what amounts to a direct assault on the middle-class. In addition to securing important labor protections, when unions are strong, the middle-class is strong. As new research from David Madland, Nick Bunker, and Karla Walter shows, every percentage point increase in unionization builds middle-class incomes for both union members and non-union members:

Each percentage point increase in union membership puts about $153 more per year into the pockets of the middle class — meaning that if unionization rates increased by 10 percentage points (about the level they were in 1980) — then the typical middle class household would earn $1,532 more this year. This figure indicates how much better off all members of the middle class would be — not just those who are union members — if unions regained some strength. And these gains would continue year after year.

To put these results in context, our analysis indicates that increasing union membership is as important to rebuilding the middle class as boosting college graduation rates, results that while shocking to some, are consistent with previous research.

Wages for the working class have been essentially stagnant for wages, while income inequality in the U.S. is the worst its been since the 1920s. At the moment, the top one percent of households make almost 25 percent of the nation’s income, while making about ten percent in the 1970s. Last year alone, CEO pay grew by 27 percent, while worker pay grew by just two percent.

Increasing unionization can help reverse some of these trends, and can also help boost the overall economy. After all, “from 1947 to 1973, the period when unions were strongest and nearly one-third of workers were organized, U.S. economic output nearly tripled in size, growing at an average of 3.8 percent annually“; since 2001, economic output has been just 2.2 percent annually.