Unions Waning, but Holding Edge on the Color Line

By Michelle Chen Feb 04, 2010

The portion of the U.S. workforce that belongs to a union has fallen to historical lows. The latest data from the feds show that unionization dwindled to 12.3 percent in 2009 (about 15.3 million), basically the same as the year before. The number of workers with union membership fell by 771,000, largely due to the unemployment crisis. The decline marks a low ebb in the state of working America, with acute consequences for working-class people of color. An analysis by the Center for Economic and Police Research (CEPR) shows that belonging to a union makes a major difference on a worker’s pay grade and overall well-being:

unionization is strongly associated with increases in overall compensation, measured here by hourly wages and health and pension benefit coverage. In the typical state, unionization is associated with about a 15 percent increase in hourly wages (roughly $2.50 per hour), a 19-percentage-point increase in the likelihood of having employer-provided health insurance, and a 24-percentage-point increase in the likelihood of having employer-sponsored retirement plans.

While the so-called "union advantage" affects workers across the board, workers of color and immigrant worker have a special stake in promoting unionism. Not only are they on the wrong end of the wealth gap; they’re often more vulnerable than their white peers to wage theft and other employer abuses. Latino workers are at higher risk of fatal workplace injuries and less likely to have employer-based health insurance. Among both Blacks and Latinos, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the proportion of workers with "good jobs" (those with solid wages and benefits) has declined sharply since 1979. Currently, Blacks are more likely to be union members than whites, while Latinos are less likely. Whether they’re under- or overrepresented in the union workforce, people of color stand to gain substantially from the so-called "union advantage" (correlation between unionization and higher wages), which could go a long way toward bridging the income gap between white men and the women and people of color making up the rest of the workforce. The AFL-CIO’s analysis of 2008 labor data reveals:

Union women earn 32 percent more than nonunion women, African American union members earn 28 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, for Latino workers, the union advantage equals 43 percent and for Asian American workers, the union advantage is 6 percent.

That might explain partially why the union workforce is more diverse than ever: people of color made up about 30 percent of union members in 2008, according to CEPR, up from less than 20 percent in 1983. The American labor movement has historically been fraught with racial tensions and segregation, yet it also helped drive major civil rights struggles. Today, with union membership in crisis, worker exploitation rampant, decent jobs drying up, and people of color fast becoming the bedrock of organized labor, the basic demographics of the movement demand unity. It’s not just a matter of politics, but of sheer survival. Image: United Food and Commercial Workers