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"Vibrant worker organizations are key to restoring the balance of economic power in our country," says AFL-CIO. (Photo: Peoples World/flickr/cc)

Evidence Keeps Piling Up: Unions Are Very, Very, Very Good for Workers

'When working people speak with one voice, our economy is stronger, and all workers do better.'

Deirdre Fulton, staff writer

With most of the largest organized workforces in the U.S. going to the bargaining table before the end of next year, "it is likely that more workers will be seeking raises through the collective bargaining process in 2015–2016 than at any other point in recent American labor history."

"Collective bargaining is our best tool for raising wages in America. It should be front and center as Congress considers policy and as presidential candidates announce agendas."
—AFL-CIO

So says the AFL-CIO, whose report, released Friday, offers a comprehensive look at the current state of collective bargaining in a period when an estimated 5 million American workers will bargain for new contracts.

The analysis (pdf) finds that working people who bargained for new contracts in the first half of 2015 saw their wages increase by an average of 4.3 percent, a jump of $1,147 a year for an average worker in the U.S.

That's good news for workers pushing for higher minimum wage nationwide with campaigns like Fight for $15.

"Collective bargaining is our best tool for raising wages in America," the report reads. "It should be front and center as Congress considers policy and as presidential candidates announce agendas. Moreover, the results will illuminate the larger issue underpinning chronic wage stagnation: that vibrant worker organizations are key to restoring the balance of economic power in our country."

The labor federation's analysis is just one of several arguments in favor of organized labor to emerge this week.

Campaign for America's Future blogger Dave Johnson wrote Friday about a new report, presented by the Center for American Progress and co-authored with economists Richard Freeman and Eunice Han, which "is only the latest look at how labor unions enable working people to do better."

"Unions generally advocate for policies that benefit all working people—such as minimum wage increases and increased expenditures on schools and public services—that may especially benefit low-income parents and their children."
—Center for American Progress

That analysis looked at economic mobility—"that is to say, the ability to improve upon the situation of one’s birth."

It found "a strong relationship between union membership and intergenerational mobility," with low-income children rising higher in income rankings when they grow up in areas with high union membership. "Children who grow up in union households have better outcomes," the authors stated.

They continued:

There are strong reasons to believe that unions may increase opportunity. First, there are the direct effects that a parent’s union membership may have on their children. Union workers make more money than comparable nonunion workers—what economists call the union premium—and when parents make more money, their children tend to make more money [...] There may be other channels through which children whose parents were in a union have better outcomes than other children: union jobs may be more stable and predictable, which could produce a more stable living environment for children, and union jobs are more likely to provide family health insurance.

But there are also a series of other ways that unions could boost intergenerational mobility for nonunion workers. It has been shown that unions push up wages for nonunion workers, for example, and these wage gains for nonunion members could be passed on to their children. Children who grow up in nonunion households may also display more mobility in highly unionized areas, for example, because they may be able to join a union when they enter the labor market. Finally, unions generally advocate for policies that benefit all working people—such as minimum wage increases and increased expenditures on schools and public services—that may especially benefit low-income parents and their children. A recent study on interest groups and political influence found that most of the national groups that supported middle-class priorities were unions. Another study found that states with higher union density also have higher minimum wages.

Further supporting those claims, Kevin Cashman and Evan Butcher wrote Thursday for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) about the so-called "union dividend"—the idea that organized labor's "presence and political power are likely used to push for policies that benefit all workers."

"Those who want more pro-worker policies—even those that are not associated with unions—should be looking to see how unions representation can be increased at the national, state, and local levels."
—Center for Economic and Policy Research

They explained:

The United States is the only rich country in the world that does not guarantee paid sick leave on a national level. But in smaller jurisdictions where unions are well-represented there has been significant progress towards requiring employers to provide them. The same trend is evident with respect to paid family leave—leave for to provide care for family members or arrangements for their welfare—and for laws that raise the minimum wage above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

"With union membership and representation continuing to decline, all those who want more pro-worker policies—even those that are not associated with unions—should be looking to see how unions representation can be increased at the national, state, and local levels," Cashman and Butcher continued.

"This country is having an important debate about raising wages and tackling income inequality," said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in a statement on Friday. "When working people speak with one voice, our economy is stronger, and all workers do better."


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