Employees of an Apple retail store in Towson, Maryland celebrated a successful vote to form a union on June 18, 2022. (Photo: IAM/Twitter)

Analysis Shows New Unionization Wave Gives Young Workers Much to Celebrate

Union representation for workers under 35 means higher median hourly earnings and increased coverage by employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement plans.

Amid a resurgent U.S. labor organizing movement, an analysis released Thursday highlights how union membership specifically benefits workers under age 35.

"The advantages of union representation for younger workers make reinforcing the labor movement a critical investment in our collective future."

The new Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report--entitled The Union Advantage for Young Workers: Higher Wages and More Benefits--comes as employees of Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, Starbucks, Trader Joe's, and more are waging and have recently won unionization fights.

"The advantages of union representation for younger workers make reinforcing the labor movement a critical investment in our collective future," said CEPR research associate and analysis author Hayley Brown in a statement. "It is vital to empower workers by protecting and supporting their unions."

Brown's report points out that "many workers between the ages of 18 and 34 will have entered the labor market during either the Great Recession or the Covid-19 pandemic, raising the potential for economic scarring across an especially large cohort."

"Union representation presents a potential counter," the paper continues. "Since union wage advantages often match or exceed earnings setbacks related to economic shocks, increased union density could serve as a bulwark against longer-term earnings suppression."

The analysis also highlights that while the Affordable Care Act policy allowing people under 26 to remain on a parent's health insurance plan has made securing coverage easier for many younger people, medical care is still expensive in the United States, and "no such provision exists for retirement."

"Increased union presence can dovetail nicely with other social movements, with younger workers helping to facilitate hybridized collective action that addresses inequality and injustice on multiple fronts," the report adds. "However, opportunities for this remain limited due to precipitous declines in union membership and coverage across workers of all ages since 1983."

In 1983, 18.7% of workers ages 18 to 34 were covered by a union; last year, that figure was just 9%, around where it has hovered for the past decade. However, recent organizing and public opinion--new Gallup polling shows 71% of Americans and 72% of young U.S. workers support unions, a five-decade high--could cause that figure to rise.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said in July that from October through the end of June, union representation petitions filings have soared by 58% and unfair labor practice charges have jumped by 16% relative to the same period for the previous fiscal year.

Young workers who succeed in unionizing could see a notable impact on their wages as well as healthcare and retirement benefits. Brown found that from 2016 to 2021, the median hourly earnings for unionized workers ages 18 to 34 was $23.86, compared with $17.27 for those who weren't covered by a union--a difference of $6.59 per hour. Young union workers also were more likely than their nonunion counterparts to have employer-sponsored health insurance (71.1% v. 46.8%) and retirement plans (54.5% v. 24.5%).

"Simply comparing the earnings and benefits outcomes of union and nonunion workers does not necessarily tell us whether or to what extent differences in these outcomes can be explained by union coverage," the analysis notes, explaining that "union workers may be more likely to have other characteristics associated with higher earnings and increased benefit coverage, such as more formal education or geographic clustering in states with different market norms."

Because of that, Brown applied "standard regression techniques to control for systemic differences between the union and nonunion workforces," and found similar trends.

"These results suggest that union representation still confers substantial wage and benefit premiums for young workers," the paper states. "After adjusting for potential confounders, union representation is associated with an 11.3% wage premium for workers between the ages of 18 and 34."

"The union effect also remains substantial with respect to employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement benefits," the document adds, "with regression-adjusted union premiums corresponding with a 37.9% increase in employer-sponsored health insurance coverage and an 89.8% increase in employer-sponsored retirement coverage."

According to the report:

To make the most of this potentially revitalizing moment, policymakers must approach pro-labor initiatives with a greater sense of urgency. The already underfunded NLRB will need additional resources to expediently process the growing number of union petition filings and unfair labor practice complaints. Policymakers must also prioritize legislation that will reduce organizing obstacles and codify collective bargaining rights for additional workers--legislation such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, respectively.

Finally, states also have a role to play in protecting the rights of workers to organize unions and collectively bargain. So-called right-to-work legislation undercuts union funding and has been shown to weaken labor unions and undermine the workers they represent. State-run union elections can also be more unnecessarily onerous for workers in certain industries, making legislation like California's Assembly Bill 2183 crucial to ensure that all workers are able to exercise their right to organize and join unions.

The analysis comes with just over two months until the U.S. midterm elections. Progressive leaders who support the nation's ongoing organizing efforts are urging Democrats to appeal to the working people who are fighting for unions and better labor conditions.

"Across the country young people are reviving the labor movement," Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said in an August speech. "For every moderate suburban Republican, there are line cooks, homeworkers, dishwashers, cashiers, farmworkers who would vote a straight Democratic ticket if they were given a reason to."

"Let's give working folks a reason to turn out to vote for us," she declared. "That's who our party should be for, that's who our party should be talking to, and that's who we should be counting on to help us save our democracy in November."

Addressing a trade union rally in London Wednesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) similarly celebrated the labor organizing happening in the United States, and called for building international solidarity to take on corporate greed and create "a world that belongs to all of us, not just the people on top."

"Our job right now is to bring people all over the world together," he said, "to make it clear to the oligarchs that their day and their power is ending."

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