Research & Education Dept.
Fewer Union Members
Means Lower Pay for All
Joyce B. Robinson
Research & Education Department Director
(This article first appeared in the May/June 2013 edition of The American Postal Worker.)
In the decades after World War II, the labor movement greatly improved pay, benefits and working conditions not just for unionized workplaces, but for the nation’s entire workforce. The better pay and benefits that unions helped establish for blue- and white-collar workers in every industry helped build the great American middle class.
But in recent years that trend has been reversing: Union membership has been declining, and the American Dream — home ownership, good jobs, and retirement security — has become elusive for millions of working families.
The statistics on declining union membership paint a bleak picture.
Union Coverage Rate 1973-1022
In the early 1970s, 26.7 percent of American workers enjoyed the benefits of union representation. But by 2011, the percentage of wage and salary workers belonging to unions fell to just 13.1 percent, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2012 the percentage of unionized U.S. workers had fallen further, to just 11.3 percent.
According to EPI, median compensation (which includes wages and benefits) rose by just 10.7 percent between 1973 and 2011 — well below the rate of inflation. Today it takes $5.19 to equal the purchasing power $1 had in 1973, BLS data shows.
Meanwhile, the income of the country’s top one percent has grown by 240 percent since 1979.
Though unionized workers still enjoy better wages and benefits than non-unionized workers, EPI found, the falling rate of union representation has created downward pressure on compensation for all workers.
Declining union power has also led anti-worker forces to step up their assault on unions. In Indiana, which enacted a “right-to-work” law in 2012, union membership fell from 302,000 to 246,000. In Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature outlawed collective bargaining for public- sector workers, union membership also declined, from 339,000 to 293,000.
Despite the assault on unions, the labor movement helped President Obama win re-election, and helped pro-labor candidates win hotly-contested Senate races in Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin), Indiana (Joe Donnelly), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), and several other states.