Labor spotlight

The union advantage

Research shows membership pays big dividends

Working people are under attack — from Republicans in Washington, D.C., and their tax legislation and from big business that has the president and the GOP-led Congress in its corner. And as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) case in its current term, a new bull’s-eye is on the backs of public-employee unions and the workers for whom they fight.

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“Workers right now are all keenly aware that we’re in a vulnerable spot,” said Celine McNicholas, the Economic Policy Institute’s labor counsel and one of the authors of its recent report on the advantage of unions. “As unions decline, inequality has run rampant.”

What exactly is at risk as unions come under fire? What do you have as a union member that’s worth fighting for?

You earn more — 13.2 percent more, on average — than a nonunionized person in the same sector with similar education, occupation and experience, according to the EPI report. For example, nonunion security officers made $8 an hour without benefits in New York in 2004. After organizing, 14,000 security members now represented by 32BJ earn a $15.50 minimum wage and receive 100 percent employer-paid family health coverage.

The union advantage - when unions decline inequality rises

You are much more likely to have a defined-benefit pension that provides a guaranteed lifetime annuity not subject to the ups and downs of the stock market. Of workers who have pension plans, 74 percent of union workers — including UFT members — participate in a traditional defined-benefit pension, compared with 15 percent of nonunion workers, according to EPI. All told, 90 percent of union workers are in a retirement plan compared with 75 percent of nonunion workers. Employers spend, on average, 56 percent more on retirement for union workers than comparable nonunion employers.

You have more job security. Union contracts provide due-process rights for members facing termination. Union employers must show proper, documented reasons for dismissal.

You are more likely to have employer-provided, affordable health insurance. As a union member, you are 18.3 percent more likely to be covered, when adjustments are made for personal characteristics and other factors, than a nonunion worker, according to EPI. Just as important, your employer contributes 77.4 percent more (per hour worked) to your benefits than comparable nonunion employers.

You have paid sick days. The EPI report found 87 percent of unionized workers have paid sick days, compared with just 69 percent of nonunion workers.

The union advantage - wages-higher

Union membership reduces the race and gender wage gaps. When they are union members, women and minorities earn the same as white men who do the same job thanks to union-established pay transparency, clear terms for raises and promotions, and the correction of salary discrepancies, EPI says. Unions also help hike women’s hourly pay, which, on average, is 9.2 percent higher than that of nonunionized women with comparable characteristics, the report finds.

You know more about your rights and have union representatives who help protect them. For example, nonunion workers are almost twice as likely to be the victims of minimum-wage violations as union workers, EPI found.

Your workplace is safer, the researchers found, because your union protects you from repercussions for reporting safety issues, and it invests in programs to educate workers about safety issues. After pressure from groups including the UFT, for example, the city Department of Education in 2017 — five years ahead of schedule — finished clearing 765 public schools of light fixtures containing probable carcinogens.

You have more say about how many hours you work. Forty-six percent of nonunion workers have little or no say, compared with 22 percent of union workers, according to EPI.

The union advantage - defined benefit pension

Unions lift low-wage jobs so they can provide living wages and a chance for advancement. For example, a 2006 first-ever union contract for 5,300 janitors in Houston resulted in a 47 percent pay increase and an increase in guaranteed weekly hours, according to EPI.

“This economy is certainly not working for those of us who are dependent on our paychecks to make ends meet,” McNicholas said.

It’s an important moment, she said, to remind people of the key role of unions in addressing the growing income inequality and the power imbalance between workers and employers in the United States.

“Every campaign for workers’ rights we’ve had and been successful is in large part a credit to the labor movement and its advocacy,” McNicholas says. “Having a way for working people to be able to aggregate their voice and make an impact on policy is essential, and that’s what unions have done. It’s all about working people sharing in prosperity.”

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