Economy

Why Union Members Are Better Off

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On Monday, many Americans — although not everyone, given that paid holidays aren’t guaranteed — will have the day off to celebrate Labor Day, often synonymous with barbecues and beach getaways.

But the holiday was originally begun in the midst of labor unrest that eventually led to the deaths of 30 striking railway workers. Legislation to create the holiday passed to meet one of the demand of the labor movement: that workers get a holiday to celebrate their efforts and sacrifices.

The labor movement has secured many other victories for American workers — the minimum wage, overtime pay, and health and safety regulations among them. But while the number of people who actually belong to a union has continued to decline over recent decades, being a member still comes with important benefits, particularly for marginalized groups like women and people of color.

According to a recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), while there is an overall 11.3 percent wage boost for being in a union, women get a much larger leg up. Women who work full-time and are represented by a union make about 30 percent more a week, on average, than women who aren’t unionized; men see a smaller 20 percent boost. They also have a much smaller gender wage gap: unionized women make about 89 percent of what unionized men make, compared to an overall 78 percent wage gap.

The same is true for people of color. In 2012, Asian workers saw a nearly 15 percent wage boost for being in a union, black workers got an extra 17 percent, and Hispanic workers saw an even larger 23 percent premium. And women of color get an even greater wage improvement: according to IWPR’s current research, Hispanic women in a union see a 42 percent wage advantage, compared to a 40 percent one for Hispanic men, while black women get a nearly 34 percent leg up versus 28.5 percent for black men. Asian women can expect about 15 percent more. That helps reduce their gender wage gap, which is much larger than what white women experience.

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CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Unionization also benefits other groups that tend to be paid lower. Immigrants, both recent and established, get a more than 16 percent pay premium for being in a union.

Unions help increase pay for a couple of reasons. One is that they put pressure on employers to increase compensation. Many today are being pressured by shareholders to pay money out to investors, which is consuming nearly all of their earnings, leaving little left to invest in other things like employee compensation. But unionized workers can push back on that trend.

The other reason is that unionization often makes pay scales more transparent, which benefits women and people of color who may be unfairly paid less than their counterparts. They’ll be powerless to address pay gaps if they don’t know what their coworkers make. The gender wage gap inside the unionized workforce, already small, has been steadily shrinking. The overall wage gap hasn’t made much progress in a decade.

The benefits aren’t limited to salaries, either. Workers in unions are much more likely to get employer benefits like pensions and health care. And this is also particularly true for women and people of color. About three-quarters of unionized women have a pension, compared to 42 percent of non-union female workers, and more than three-quarters have health insurance coverage through work versus about half of non-unionized women. Unionized black and Hispanic workers are between 27 and 30 percent more likely to have those benefits.