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The Labor Movement in the U.S.

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AFL-CIO Advocates for Equality

As part of our continued coverage on the  labor union movement, one local organizing campaign discusses the importance of union dues.

From the AFL-CIO Communications Team

Union membership helps raise workers' pay and narrow the income gap that disadvantages minorities and women. Union workers earn 30 percent more than nonunion workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their median weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary work were $863 in 2007, compared with $663 for their nonunion counterparts.

The union wage benefit is even greater for minorities and women. Union women earn 33 percent more than nonunion women, African American union members earn 37 percent more than their nonunion counterparts,  for Latino workers, the union advantage equals 51 percent and for Asian American workers, the union advantage is 4 percent.

Union members in low-wage occupations on average earn a great deal more than nonunion workers in the same occupations, often lifting their earnings above the official poverty level. For example, union cashiers in 2006 earned an average of $11.87-46 percent more than nonunion workers in the same occupation. Over a year's time, having a union card could translate into more than $7,800 in additional pay for such a low wage worker. While the nonunion cashier's earnings, on average, leaves a worker $3,746 below the poverty line for a family of four, the union cashier's earnings, on average, brings the worker $4,075 above the poverty line for a family of four.

According to Professor Harley Shaiken of the University of California-Berkeley,[1] unions are associated with higher productivity, lower employee turnover, improved workplace communication, and a better-trained workforce.

Prof. Shaiken is not alone. There is a substantial amount of academic literature on the following benefits of unions and unionization to employers and the economy:

    * Productivity

    * Competitiveness

    * Product or service delivery and quality

    * Training

    * Turnover

    * Solvency of the firm

    * Workplace health and safety

    * Economic development


According to a recent survey of 73 independent studies on unions and productivity: "The available evidence points to a positive and statistically significant association between unions and productivity in the U.S. manufacturing and education sectors, of around 10 and 7 percent, respectively."

Some scholars have found an even larger positive relationship between unions and productivity.  According to Brown and Medoff, "unionized establishments are about 22 percent more productive than those that are not."

Product/ Service Delivery and Quality

According to Professors Michael Ash and Jean Ann Seago, heart attack recovery rates are higher in hospitals where nurses are unionized than in non-union hospitals.

Another study looked at the relationship between unionization and product quality in the auto industry.  According to a summary of this study prepared by American Rights at Work:

"The author examines the system of co-management created through the General Motors-United Auto Workers partnership at the Saturn Corporation...The author credits the union with building a dense communications network throughout Saturn's management system. Compared to non-represented advisors, union advisors showed greater levels of lateral communication and coordination, which had a significant positive impact on quality performance."


Several studies in have found a positive association between unionization and the amount and quality of workforce training.  Unionized establishments are more likely to offer formal training.  This is especially true for small firms.  There are a number of reasons for this: less turnover among union workers, making the employer more likely to offer training; collective bargaining agreements that require employers to provide training; and finally, unions often conduct their own training.


Professor Shaiken also finds that unions reduce turnover.  He cites Freeman and Medoff's finding that "about one fifth of the union productivity effect stemmed from lower worker turnover.  Unions improve communication channels giving workers the ability to improve their conditions short of ‘exiting.'"


Labor's enemies assert that unions drive employers out of business, but academic research refutes this claim.  According to Professors Richard Freeman and Morris Kleiner, unionism has a statistically insignificant effect (meaning no effect) on firm solvency. Freeman and Kleiner conclude "unions do not, on average, drive firms or business lines out of business or produce high displacement rates for unionized workers."

Workplace Health and Safety.

Employers should be concerned about workplace health and safety as a matter of enlightened self-interest.  According to an American Rights at Work summary of a study by John E. Baugher and J. Timmons Roberts:

"Only one factor effectively moves workers who are in subordinate positions to actively cope with hazards: membership in an independent labor union.  These findings suggest that union growth could indirectly reduce job stress by giving workers the voice to cope effectively with job hazards."

for educational purposes only.  Not an endorsement of unions.




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