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Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hold a rally at the Richard J. Daley Center plaza on February 26, 2018 in Chicago. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Unions Make Life Better at Work and Beyond, New Report Shows

The relationship between "high union density and higher household incomes, access to healthcare and paid leave, and fewer voting restrictions highlights the importance of protecting the right of workers to organize."

Kenny Stancil

While it is well-established that unions strengthen worker power on the job and reduce inequality, a new report out Wednesday shows that higher unionization rates are also associated with improved conditions outside of the workplace, including better access to healthcare, paid leave, and the ballot box.

"Unions have linked voting rights to workers' rights."

"Unions promote economic equality and build worker power, helping workers to win increases in pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions," said Asha Banerjee, economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and co-author of the report. "But the benefits of unions extend far beyond the workplace. The data suggest that unions also give workers a voice in shaping their communities and political representation."

To document the correlation between organized labor and various indicators of economic, personal, and democratic well-being, researchers at EPI compared Census Bureau data on minimum wages, median annual incomes, access to unemployment insurance, lack of health insurance, Medicaid expansion, paid sick and family leave laws, and voter suppression laws in states with "high" (13.5% to 24.7%), "medium" (8.3% to 13/3%), and "low" (3.2% to 7.7%) levels of union density.

All 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia were sorted into three equally sized categories based on their average level of union density—defined as the percentage of workers in a state who are members of a union or covered by a collective bargaining agreement—from 2015 to 2019. The past two years were excluded "to avoid any potential distortions related to the... Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing recession."

Echoing an extensive body of research, EPI's analysis underscores the positive economic benefits that correspond with unionization.

"The 17 U.S. states with the highest union densities have state minimum wages that are on average 19% higher than the national average and 40% higher than those in low-union-density states," says the report.

"Unions," the authors emphasize, "have played a central role in organizing and mobilizing campaigns to increase state and local minimum wages." The Service Employees International Union, for instance, "has had a crucial role in the successful national Fight for $15 campaign," helping to win raises for millions of workers nationwide.

Researchers noted that "Black, Hispanic, and Asian American/Pacific Islander women—along with Black and brown workers as a whole, who have long been overrepresented in low-wage service sectors—have benefited disproportionately from these efforts."

EPI also found that "high-union-density states had an average median income about $6,000 higher than the national average," while "the low-union-density states had an average median income about $6,500 lower than the national average"—resulting in a gap of more than $12,000 between the two groups of states.

Moreover, "unemployed workers are twice as likely to receive unemployment benefits if they live in high-union-density states than if they live in low-union-density states," according to EPI.

In addition to drawing attention to how the labor movement helps increase wages and access to unemployment insurance, researchers at EPI also examined the relationship between unions and personal well-being and concluded that states with higher union density are more likely than states with weaker workers' rights to enact policies that encourage better physical and mental health.

The report finds that residents of high-union-density states are more likely to have health insurance, with an average uninsured rate of 6.8%, compared with 11.3% in low-union-density states.

All 17 high-union-density states elected to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. By contrast, just five low-union-density states did so.

Highlighting "an important connection between unionization rates, health outcomes, economic security, and racial disparities," the report points out that "many of the low- and medium-density-states that have the highest shares of uninsured residents, and many of the states that have not expanded Medicaid, also have relatively high concentrations of Black workers."

"Given the ugly racist origins of 'right-to-work' anti-union laws," says the report, "it is not surprising that these states with relatively large Black populations have continued to suppress unions and worker collective action."

"Conversely," researchers wrote, "the surprising victory of Medicaid expansion in low-union-density, high-Black-population states such as Louisiana and Virginia suggests that when unions advocate for popular issues across the nation, the momentum can spread, and further victories can contribute to lowering racial and economic disparities despite the odds and even in states with a low union presence."

They added that "union-supported Medicaid expansions are one more example of a 'spillover effect' and channel through which unionization benefits not only union members, but also members of the broader community."

EPI tells a similar story with respect to paid sick and family leave policies. "Unions have played an integral role in coalition campaigns" to pass such laws at the state and local level, researchers wrote. "The tangible impact that unions have had in their advocacy for such laws is evident in the pattern of progress so far."

Finally, when it comes to democratic well-being, EPI found that "there is a strong correlation between voting restrictions and low union density."

Because the analysis does not extend past 2019, researchers didn't capture the ongoing assault on the franchise by state-level Republicans nationwide. However, they did stress that "recent sustained attacks" on the right to vote "threaten to undermine democratic stability."

Although four of the 17 highest-union-density states enacted laws limiting ballot access between 2011 and 2019, "they have passed significantly fewer restrictive voting laws than in the middle 17 states and the 17 lowest-union-density states," the report notes, adding that "over 70% of low-union-density states passed at least one voter suppression law" during that time period.

Margaret Poydock, policy analyst and government affairs specialist at EPI and co-author of the report, said in a statement that "through long-standing advocacy and work to protect the right to vote, unions have linked voting rights to workers' rights."

"Unions," Poldock added, "play a key role in mobilizing workers to vote, helping to determine which political leaders are elected and what occupational backgrounds they come from."

Thanks to the ongoing assault on organized labor by corporations and their allies in government, however, union membership in the U.S. has been declining for decades, contributing to skyrocketing inequality.

"Unions give workers a voice at work, with a direct impact on wages and working conditions," notes the report, which was published in the wake of two recent workplace disasters that killed several non-union workers at a candle factory in Kentucky and an Amazon warehouse in Illinois.

Some commentators have argued that those deaths—caused by profit-maximizing bosses who forced employees to attend shifts despite impending tornadoes and refused to let them leave before the storms hit—may have been prevented by a union.

As the report emphasizes, unions have powerful, even lifesaving, effects on workers—both in and outside of work.

"However, union density levels across the country are not as high as they could be," the authors wrote. "While nearly half of all non-union workers say they want a union in their workplace, only 12% of all workers are covered by a union contract."

"Current law places too many obstacles in the way of workers trying to organize and gives employers too much power to interfere with workers' free choice," they continued. "It is therefore critical that policymakers enact reforms that restore a meaningful right to organize and collectively bargain. One simple way to help accomplish this would be to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which will help restore the right to organize and give workers access to a union and the well-being it promotes."

"Building union density is not just a worker or workplace issue, but it is also a mechanism to uplift families and communities," researchers added. "The relationship we have demonstrated between high union density and higher household incomes, access to healthcare and paid leave, and fewer voting restrictions highlights the importance of protecting the right of workers to organize. This right could be a fundamental component in strengthening economic security, quality of life, civil and voting rights, and racial justice in our communities."

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