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Union workers get higher pay, if they can join

6 minute read

A member of the Ironworkers Local 7 union installs steel beams on high-rise building under construction during a summer heat wave in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

(Reuters) - A Reuters analysis of two decades of wages for retail workers found that the pay advantage union workers have enjoyed over non-union employees in that sector is increasing.

The weekly pay differential between union and nonunion workers widened from $20 in 2013 to more than $50 in 2019, according to the July 9 report.

One reason for the widening pay gap is that unionized workers tend to work more hours per week and on a predictable schedule, while non-union workers often have a “variable schedule” that depends on how busy management thinks the store might be. One non-union worker commented in the Reuters report that his employer could increase his hourly rate without actually giving him a “raise” – because the pay increase can be offset by reducing his weekly hours at work.

The findings contradict a claim commonly made by employers that unionization will lead to lower pay for employees (like Amazon, the country's second-largest private employer).

The analysis also further illustrates the connection between the decline of unionization in the United States and rising income inequality, spurred by a major shift in power from workers to corporations and a regulatory regime that leaves workers unprotected against employers' anti-union efforts. Even as signs emerge of a revitalized interest in organizing, the full picture of the state of the labor movement remains bleak

Americans view unions more favorably now than they have since 2003, according to a separate Reuters report on May 13. Over 65% approve of unions. And workers won 72% of union elections in the past five years – meaning a majority voted in favor of unionizing. They won nine out of every 10 last year, amid concerns about workplace safety and health that were growing, or newly revealed, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s the highest win rate for workers seeking to unionize in a decade.

Still, there were only 5,804 union elections in both the public and private sectors in the past five years, according to the July 9 Reuters report. And only 11% of the eligible U.S. workforce actually belonged to a union in 2020, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It also bears mentioning that the latest Reuters analysis confirms what many other studies have shown: Unionized workers get paid more and have better benefits, and the dearth of unionization in the country is linked to skyrocketing income inequality.

In 2020, "nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 84% of earnings for workers who were union members ($958 versus $1,144)," according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Analysts at the Economic Policy Institute calculated in 2019 that American workers were losing out on roughly $200 billion each year in pay and benefits that they could have had under collectively bargained union contracts. (President Joe Biden’s White House has also taken to citing this EPI study, according to the May 13 Reuters article and a May 14 report by Business Insider).

The major reason for this disconnect between the benefits of unionization and Americans' improving opinion of unions, on one hand, and the low levels of actual unionization, on the other, is that many American employers respond to organizing with coercive and punitive anti-union campaigns, which includes illegal behavior.

U.S. employers are charged with violating federal labor law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns, and they spend about $340 million annually on “union avoidance” consultants who work to prevent unionization, according to a 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute. In the recent analysis, Reuters reported that workers “often fear that retailers will move to close stores and warehouses or fire people who try to organize."

The Biden administration has pledged to fight against income inequality and the power imbalance in employers’ favor. But the White House and Democrats’ central effort on this end – the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act – has only a slim chance of being approved by staunchly pro-business Senate Republicans. The legislation would prohibit employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings during unionization campaigns and enable the National Labor Relations Board to impose fines for labor violations, among other measures.

That means the labor movement and unions themselves will need the administration's voice, at least, and the support of individual workers. The new analysis, at any rate, bolsters the basic argument that it really might be a good idea to join a union.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com

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