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Decades-Long Corporate Assault on Unions Has Cost Typical Worker $3,250 a Year: Report

"This decline of unions wasn't inevitable—it was a deliberate policy choice made on behalf of wealthy interests and corporations, and it can be reversed."

People hold pro-worker signs and rally outside a Whole Foods Market after marching from Amazon headquarters in solidarity with Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama on March 26, 2021.

People hold pro-worker signs and rally outside a Whole Foods Market after marching from Amazon headquarters in solidarity with Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama on March 26, 2021. (Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

The decades-long assault on organized labor by corporations and their allies in government resulted in a dramatic erosion of union membership that cost the median U.S. worker $3,250 per year between 1979 and 2017, according to a new report released Thursday morning by the Economic Policy Institute.

The report estimates that the percentage of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements fell from 27% in 1979 to just 11.6% in 2019, a drop that had a direct impact on the wages of unionized workers and "spillover" consequences for non-unionized workers, who benefit from strong union density.

"Rebuilding collective bargaining is a necessary component of any policy agenda to reestablish robust wage growth for the vast majority of workers in the United States."
—Lawrence Mishel, Economic Policy Institute

EPI distinguished fellow Lawrence Mishel, the lead author of the new report, estimates that "for the 'typical' or median worker, declining unionization translates to a loss of $1.56 per hour worked, the equivalent of $3,250 for a full-time, full-year worker."

Mishel also finds that declining union membership explains just over 33% of the growth of the wage gap between high- and middle-wage earners over the nearly four-decade period between 1979 and 2017.

"Why has collective bargaining eroded?" Mishel asks. "The primary reason was a concerted corporate attack on unions, starting in the 1970s, that exploited weaknesses in our labor laws to suppress the ability of workers to choose collective bargaining and organize."

"This collapse of organizing was due to increased employer aggressiveness and use of both legal and illegal tactics," Mishel notes, "including captive-audience meetings (meetings delivering anti-union messages that employees must attend or else be disciplined or fired), threats of shutdowns or relocation, firing of union organizers, use of a rapidly expanded group of anti-union consultants, and process delays."

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EPI's report came as federal labor officials are set to begin counting ballots in the closely watched union election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the outcome of which could have major consequences for the labor movement nationwide.

Fearing the possible snowball effect of a vote to unionize in Bessemer, Amazon mounted an aggressive anti-union campaign that featured some of the tactics Mishel mentions in his report, from captive-audience meetings to the hiring of anti-labor consulting firms.

In a statement Thursday morning, Mishel argued that "the decline of unions wasn't inevitable—it was a deliberate policy choice made on behalf of wealthy interests and corporations, and it can be reversed."

One solution at the national level, Mishel said, is final passage of the PRO Act (pdf), a proposed revamp of U.S. labor laws that would significantly strengthen workers' collective bargaining rights and crack down on union-busting.

The legislation passed the House in March but has since run up against the Senate's 60-vote legislative filibuster, leading the AFL-CIO and many others to call for the weakening or elimination of the archaic rule.

"Rebuilding collective bargaining is a necessary component of any policy agenda to reestablish robust wage growth for the vast majority of workers in the United States," said Mishel. "Collective bargaining not only benefits union workers, but nonunion workers as well by raising wage standards across industries."

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