First Word: Labor unions work hard to serve America

Ryan Osgood, BU Democrats

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When you look at many of the problems facing America, from poverty to economic inequality, low pay, gaps in training and worker retention, the challenges we face seem almost insurmountable.

What if I told you we could help improve our society from these problems? What if the solution isn’t some trillion-dollar giveaway to the wealthiest Americans, nor a brand-new government agency, but an old American tradition? The answer is quite simple, actually: labor unions.

For most of the past century, in the United States, unionized labor was a major part of the American workforce. At the height of union membership in the United States in 1954, 34.8 percent of all wage and salaried employees were union members (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Today that number looks much bleaker, with only 10.5 percent of wage and salaried employees being union members in 2018 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The majority of union membership is centered in public sector jobs, with 33.9 percent of public sector employees being union members versus 6.4 percent of private sector employees (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

So why does this decline matter, you might be asking yourself? The importance and benefits of union membership are well-documented and help to show the usefulness of unions.

The most well-understood advantage of unions is the increased pay for members. Data shows that union members earn 20 percent more than non-union members in hourly compensation (Economic Policy Institute).

What many don’t understand however is the fact that non-union members also have higher wages in unionized workplaces. On average, non-union employees earn 5 percent in unionized workplaces than in nonunionized workplaces (Economic Policy Institute). This data shows that unions not only benefit union members but nonunion employees as well.

Another important data point in regard to unions and their benefit to workers is the increase in benefits that union membership provides. Unionized workers are 3.2 percent more likely to have paid time off and have on average three more paid days off than non-union members (Economic Policy Institute).

Union members are also 28.2 percent more likely than non-union members to receive health insurance through their employer and have on average 18 percent lower deductibles (Economic Policy Institute).

Unionized workers are similarly 24.4 percent more likely to receive health insurance in retirement from their employer than non-union employees. Meanwhile, 71.9 percent of union employees have a pension plan through their employer versus 43.8 percent of non-union employees.

When it comes to the issue of economic inequality, unions again have an answer. The evidence shows that union membership decline is one of, if not the single largest factor in regard to the rise in income inequality in the United States. Nearly one-third of wage inequality among men and one-fifth of wage inequality among women from the 1970’s can be attributed to declining union membership (Economic Policy Institute).

After World War II and until the late 1970’s, worker productivity and wage increases were nearly identical, but from 1980 to 2008, worker productivity grew 75 percent, but workers’ wages only increased 22.6 percent (Center for American Progress). Union membership is also directly linked to greater economic mobility, particularly for low-income families and children, thereby nullifying the negative effects of wealth inequality (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).

Many of the things workers now take for granted were originally hard-won successes of a labor union. In the early part of the past century, workers did not have safe working conditions, minimum wage laws, or protections from employers punishing them for being hurt on the job.

At the same time, employers demanded long hours from employees and hired young children to do some of the most dangerous jobs. Labor unions were responsible for the creation of the 40 hour work week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), minimum wage laws, and the end of child labor in America.

Labor unions are an important American tradition which has done much to help improve the living conditions of millions of workers throughout America and continue to benefit their members (and even non-members) to this day.

Ryan is a freshman Political Science major and a member of the BU Democrats.