A new report by the Economic Policy Institute discusses the importance of unions and workers’ collective action in establishing an equitable economy, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
The authors find that unionized workers earn on average 11.2% more in wages than nonunionized peers (workers in the same industry and occupation with similar education and experience). Unionized Black workers are paid 13.7% more than their nonunionized peers, while unionized Hispanic workers are paid 20.1% more than their nonunionized peers. White workers represented by union are paid 8.7% more than their nonunionized peers. Additionally, 94% of workers covered by a union contract have access to employer-sponsored health benefits, compared with just 68% of nonunion workers and 91% of workers covered by a union contract have access to paid sick days, compared with 73% of nonunion workers.
However, in 2019, only 1 in 9 U.S. workers were covered by a union contract, while 48% of all nonunion workers who say they would vote for a union if given the opportunity
“The right to a union is a racial justice issue, as well as an economic justice issue,” said Celine McNicholas, EPI’s Director of Government Affairs and one of the report’s authors. “Unions help shrink the Black–white wage gap, due to the dual facts that Black workers are more likely than white workers to be represented by a union, and Black workers who are in unions get a larger boost to wages from being in a union than white workers do. Unions also provide a crucial voice to workers in which they can address issues of discrimination and inequities at their workplace.”
The report’s authors explain that a badly broken system governing collective bargaining has eroded unions and worker power more broadly, contributing to both the suffering during the pandemic and the extreme economic inequality exacerbated by the pandemic. Despite efforts to push policy reforms, the U.S. entered the COVID-19 pandemic with a weak system of labor protections. As a result, working people, particularly low-wage workers—who are disproportionately women and workers of color—have largely borne the costs of the pandemic. While providing the “essential” services our economy relies on, many of these workers have been forced to work without protective gear, have no access to paid sick leave, and when workers have spoken up about health and safety concerns they have been fired.
“Now, more than ever, we need strong labor laws to protect working people from the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Lynn Rhinehart, EPI Senior Fellow and one of the report’s authors. “We need policymakers to use their power to halt and reverse the four-decades-old trend of rising inequality, while also creating meaningful reforms that help workers organize unions.”
The authors—who also include EPI’s Director of Policy Heidi Shierholz, Policy Associate Margaret Poydock, and Research Assistant Daniel Perez—recommend a slate of federal and state policy reforms to promote workers’ collective power and grow union density. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is a comprehensive set of reforms that would close loopholes in our labor law and strengthen workers’ rights to organize. Additionally, their recommendations include passing the Public Sector Freedom to Negotiate Act and the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, which would give all public sector workers the right to collectively bargain and amending the National Labor Relations Act to give workers more power at every stage of the organizing process.