Happy Labor Day, if a Labor Day that represents the cut-off date for unemployment benefits for millions of people and on which the federal minimum wage hasn’t risen for well over a decade offers much to be happy about. But it is a day to celebrate workers—and the labor movement that has built what power U.S. workers have.
So let’s take a few minutes to make clear the difference that unions have made, both to their members and to all workers. That second point is an important one: Unions lower economic inequality. As union membership has dropped, the share of income going to the top 10% of people has risen. And higher union density means higher wages for nonunion workers, as employers are forced to try to keep up.
“Had union density remained at its 1979 level,” according to the Economic Policy Institute, “weekly wages of nonunion men in the private sector would be 5% higher (that’s an additional $2,704 in earnings for year-round workers), while weekly wages for nonunion men in the private sector without a college education would be 8%, or $3,016 per year, higher.”
Unions also reduce racial inequality: “Black and Hispanic workers get a larger boost from unionization than their white counterparts. Black workers—both men and women—are more likely than white workers to be covered by collective bargaining, and the wage boost they get from being covered by collective bargaining is 13.1%, above the 10.2% average wage boost for unionized workers overall.” Unions also raise wages dramatically in service occupations dominated by women.
Workers in unions are more likely to have paid sick leave, health insurance, pensions, and paid vacation.
Unions have also been key to the push for a higher minimum wage—a push that hasn’t succeeded at the federal level, with Republicans in Congress united against a raise from $7.25 an hour, but has led to $150 billion in added annual income for 26 million workers thanks to state and local minimum wage increases.
So this Labor Day, remember: Unions are empowering their members, and raising their pay. But it’s not just that. Unions reduce inequality on multiple fronts, they promote policies that help everyone … and if more workers in unions, all workers would be doing better. There’s a reason corporations are so opposed to unions, and it’s not that workers don’t need them.
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