EPI resources on unions and the economy: Union impact on wages, jobs, benefits, income inequality, and firm performance

Over the last several years, EPI has developed a wide body of research on collective bargaining and unions. For instance, the statement in support of the Employee Free Choice Act by EPI President Lawrence Mishel, along with Richard Freeman of Harvard and Frank Levy of MIT, cited the recent unprecedented growth of inequality in household income and the urgent need to give workers more bargaining power. Forty prominent economists signed the original statement, including three Nobel Prize winners, agreeing that the reform would be an overall benefit to the economy and would provide a boost to workers when they need it most. Other economists later added their voices by signing the same statement, which resulted in close to 200 more signatories. The statement is available in both its original and updated versions. EPI also prepared a question-and-answer document to explain the Employee Free Choice Act.

Over the years, EPI’s staff economists and associated scholars have conducted extensive research on unions and the economy. Here is a partial list of significant recent studies and analysis:

This report previews The State of Working America, 12th Edition, presenting a detailed analysis of the impact of unionization on wages and benefits and on wage inequality.

This report directly examines the impact of RTW on the wages and benefits received by workers, both union and nonunion. The authors examine differences in the wages and benefits workers receive in RTW and non-RTW states. Among the findings: wages in RTW states are 3.2 percent lower than those in non-RTW states, and the rate of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percentage points lower in RTW states.

This report draws evidence from Canada to defend first-contract arbitration and show how it could help workers collectively bargain for that first contract. Business lobbyists and conservatives like Newt Gingrich have tried to scare the American people away from first contract arbitration with the myth that “many businesses would close, millions of jobs would be lost, and unemployment would rise significantly.” 1 The rhetoric is alarming, but the data show that First Contract Arbitration does not drive companies out of business.

Co-published by American Rights at Work and EPI, this study reveals that private-sector employer opposition to workers’ efforts to form unions has intensified and become more punitive than in the past. Employers are more than twice as likely to use 10 or more tactics—including threats of and actual firings—in their campaigns to thwart workers’ organizing efforts. Today’s anti-union activities include a greater focus than in the past on more coercive and punitive tactics designed to intensely monitor and punish union activity. EPI published several other studies by Bronfenbrenner covering earlier comparable surveys.

DiNardo, a University of Michigan professor and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, offers overwhelming evidence that unionization does not cause businesses to fail.

Bivens shows why unions are not to blame for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and that in fact, the real culprits are manipulated currency rates that make U.S.-made goods overly expensive. A dysfunctional health care system that burdens responsible employers with outsized costs, and high executive and managerial salaries, also contribute to any lack of competitiveness.

Using 12 case studies from a variety of industries, including nursing, meatpacking, and janitorial, the authors show how unions can benefit workers and communities while making companies more productive. They also illustrate the damage inflicted when union representation is removed.

This testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions outlined the importance of unions to the economic interests of workers, including common benefits like raising the wages and fringe benefits of employees, reducing income inequality both within unionized firms and across entire industries, and increasing the retention of skilled employees. Voos, an EPI Research Associate, worked closely with EPI staff in developing her testimony.

This signature publication by EPI, which has documented the economic well-being of American workers since 1988, contains a wealth of information on union benefits for members and non-members, especially for immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

This forum, the second in a two-year Agenda for Shared Prosperity initiative that laid the groundwork for much of EPI’s work today, featured proposals to remove the obstacles that increasingly disconnect working Americans from the rewards of their work.  Many of the papers described below were released in conjunction with the forum. Paul Krugman, economist and New York Times columnist, delivered the keynote address on Politics, Policy and Inequality.

Krugman outlined the economic trends over the previous decades that led to rising inequality, and offered steps that could be taken to reverse these trends, including strengthening the labor movement.

Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on March 27, 2007 about the importance of unions for American workers. Mishel explained how unions strengthen our economy as well as our democracy, and how throughout our history, unions have made the United States a fairer, more productive and healthier society. The passage of EFCA, Mishel advised, would help restore the purchasing power of average Americans and lift the living standards of those who have endured the middle class squeeze.

Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley, found that, “The yawning gap between the robust demand to join unions and the anemic membership numbers reflects the fact that, for many Americans, joining a union has become a risk rather than a right.”

In this paper, Freeman, a noted labor economist at Harvard University, writes that an overwhelming majority of workers say in surveys that they want a stronger collective voice on the job, and believe that a union would be good for their firm as well.

The authors note that at a time of soaring productivity, workers were not sharing in the profits. “People are working harder and smarter, but they are not sharing in the gains from their efforts.” They call for new laws to protect the right to join a union and bargain a contract.

This briefing paper made the case for how unions have a substantial impact on the compensation and work lives of both unionized and non-unionized workers.

EPI provides several graphs and the associated data related to unions on its State of Working America website.


1. Gingrich, Newt. 2009. “Arbitration the Real Threat in EFCA.” The American Enterprise Institute, 22 April.