|ONLINE VERSION||SEPTEMBER 1999|
|The Union Difference|
America's 16.1 million union members represent a cross-section of people--women and men of all ages, races and ethnic groups. They work in hospitals and nursing homes, auto assembly plants and on trains, buses and airplanes. They are security guards, musicians, electricians, postal workers, janitors and more.
Union membership is important to all of these people, helping them gain decent wages and working conditions and have a say in their jobs.
Unions Raise Wages -- Especially for Minorities and Women
Union membership helps raise workers' pay and narrow the income gap that disadvantages minorities and women. Union workers earn 34 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 $640 in 1997, compared with $478 for their nonunion counterparts.
Union Pay is Higher in Nearly All Occupational Groups
It is hard to compare precisely the compensation of union and nonunion workers because individual workers differ by age, length of time on the job and other characteristics. By comparing the wages of workers within occupational categories, the union difference becomes clearer. Union membership brings one of the greatest pay differences in the protective services, where members earn $724 per week, compared with $418 for nonunion workers--a difference of 73 percent. The union difference means that union machine operators earn 50 percent more than nonunion workers, and union administrative and clerical workers earn 35 percent more than employees who don't belong to unions. In 1997, nonunion salespeople were reported by the Department of Labor as earning slightly more than union workers. This has not been true in recent years, and could be due to a sampling error.
Union Workers Have Better Benefits
Union workers are more likely than their nonunion counterparts to receive health care and pension benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In 1995, 85 percent of union workers in medium and large establishments had medical care benefits, compared with only 74 percent of nonunion workers. Union workers also are more likely to have retirement and short-term disability benefits.
Eighty-seven percent of union workers have pension plans versus 78 percent of nonunion workers. Seventy-nine percent of union workers have defined-benefit retirement coverage, compared with 44 percent of nonunion workers. (Defined-benefit plans are federally insured and provide a guaranteed monthly pension amount. They are better for workers than defined-contribution plans, in which the benefit amount depends on how well the underlying investments perform.)
Incomes Are Lower in Right-to-Work States
Right-to-work laws are a bad deal for workers because they restrict workers' right to union representation and lower the average pay of all workers. In 1996, the annual average pay in free states was $29,100, compared with $24,600 in right-to-work states--an 18 percent difference. Right-to-work states have lower "union density" (the percentage of workers who belong to unions)--7.6 percent, compared with 16.8 percent in free states.
Unions Are Good for Productivity
Unions increase productivity, according to most recent studies. The voice that union members have on the job--sharing in decision-making about promotions and work and production standards--increases productivity and improves management practices. Better training, lower turnover and longer tenure also make union workers more productive.
Union Workers Have Greater Job Stability
Although 60 percent of union workers have been with their current employers for at least 10 years, only 30 percent of nonunion workers can make the same claim. Union workers have greater job stability, in part because they're more satisfied with their jobs, receive better pay, have better benefits and have access to fair grievance procedures. Even more important, most collective bargaining agreements protect union members from unjust discharge. Nonunion workers are "employees at will" who can be fired at any time for any reason--or for no reason.
Union Members by Industry, 1997
In 1997, 16.1 million U.S. wage and salary workers--14.1 percent--belonged to unions, including 9.3 million (58 percent) in private nonagricultural industries and 6.7 million (42 percent) in government at all levels. About one in four wage and salary workers in the transportation and the communication/public utilities industries were union members.
Union Membership Trends
Union membership grew quickly in the 1930s, from 3.4 million members in 1930 (12 percent of nonfarm payrolls) to more than 10 million in 1941. "Union density" peaked in 1945-1946 and in 1954, when 35 percent of workers were union members. Although the percentages began to fall, the number of union members continued to grow, from 17 million in 1954 to 20.2 million in 1978. But by 1983, membership had dipped to 17.7 million (20.1 percent of workers).
Since 1983, the union share of wage and salary workers has declined in private nonagricultural industries form 17 percent to less than 10 percent, but the share has increased slightly in government, where it stands at 37 percent. The 16.1 million U.S. workers who belonged to unions in 1997 represented 14.1 percent of the total wage and salary workforce.
Unions Are Important for Minorities
African American men and women have the highest unionization rates among U.S. workers (20 percent and 16 percent, respectively). In 1997, Latina women were just as likely as white working women to belong to unions (11 percent each), while Latino men were less likely to be unionized than their white male counterparts (13 percent and 16 percent, respectively). The unionization rate for Asian American males was 13 percent, and 12 percent for females. Union membership among white workers has declined since 1983 (the first year of data), and has decreased slightly among African American workers, but has risen by 20 percent among Latinos.
Union membership can be particularly important for African American, Asian American and Latino workers who are subjected to continuing discrimination, because collective bargaining emphasizes equal pay and fair treatment in the workplace.
Unions Are Important for Women
Overall, 12 percent of working women are union members, compared with 16 percent of male workers. While the number of women union members has risen from 5.9 million in 1983 to 6.3 million in 1997 (a 7.4 percent increase), women are still under-represented in unions. Women make up 39 percent of union membership, but they account for 48 percent of the total workforce.
Women's under-representation in unions is partly due to their over-representation in part-time jobs and nonstandard work arrangements, such as contingent work, that are characterized by low union coverage.
Like minorities, women have much to gain from union membership. Collective bargaining can win fair treatment on the job, and the union wage advantage narrows the historic pay gap between men and women.
Unions Are Important for Young and Older Workers
Unions represent workers of all ages--from young workers just entering the workforce to older workers near retirement. In 1997, 8.4 million union members were between 25 and 44 years old, and 6.5 million members were 45 to 64 years old.
Union membership is highest among 45- to 54-year-olds, 29 percent of whom belong to unions. But almost 1 million union members are younger than 25, demonstrating firm support for union representation among young workers.
Union and Part-Time Workers
More and more workers are in part-time jobs. A disproportionate number of part-timers have contingent and other nonstandard work arrangements (posing an organizing challenge for unions), and an increasing number of them work part time involuntarily because they can't find full-time jobs. About 7 percent of part-time workers are union members, compared with 16 percent of full-time workers. Although union coverage for full-time workers has declined from 23 percent in 1983 (the first year of data) to 16 percent today, it has remained almost constant for part-time workers. The number of part-time workers who are union members has remained at basically 1.5 million workers.
From The Union Difference: Fast Facts on Union Membership and Pay 1998, Copyright © AFL-CIO 1998.