How Unions Help Race And Gender Wage Gaps

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images.
Unions may be conceptual for many workers who have never been a member of one. In 2016, membership rates hit 10.7%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a decrease from the year before.
Though there are only 14.6 million American workers in unions, interest in unions remains relatively high, particularly among young people, even when considering party affiliation.
"Currently, 76% of Democrats hold a favorable view of unions, while only two-in-ten express an unfavorable one," Shiva Maniam wrote in a January 2017 Pew Research report. "Among Republicans, fewer than half (44%) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions. There are no significant demographic differences among Democrats in views of labor unions," she continued, "but Republicans are divided along age, educational and ideological lines" (with older Republicans and Republican-leaning independents viewing labor organizations less favorably than young workers.
Advertisement
Amid growing conversation about millennial workers and their relationships to unions, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) recently released a report highlighting the impact that collective bargaining can have. Here are three interesting takeaways.

Unions Are More Diverse Than They May Seem

The decline in union membership over the last 20 years may contribute to the lasting impression of these groups as predominantly white, predominantly male, and primarily based in the manufacturing sector. However, per EPI's report, about 10.6 million of the 16.3 million workers covered by a union contract in the United States in 2016 were women and/or people of color.
"Black workers are the most likely to be represented by unions: 14.5% of Black workers age 18 to 64 are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, compared with 12.5% of white workers and 10.1% of Hispanic workers," the report states.
Another interesting fact: The EPI cites Hollywood television writers as a place where unions are "thriving" in "new economy workplaces."
"In 2016 the six major media companies that dominate film and television (CBS, Comcast, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, and Viacom), reported almost $51 billion in operating profits," the report says. "Those profits have doubled in the last decade and continue to grow. Much of the industry's success is attributable to the roughly 13,000 men and women who write television shows and films and who belong to the Writers Guild of America. Despite this contribution to the industry's record profitability, TV writers' incomes were in decline."
Advertisement
A recent collective bargaining agreement between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios, networks, and independent producers, led to "increases in compensation and digital residuals and preserved broad health care benefits," the EPI notes.
"Writers are hesitant to consider ourselves labor because it seems insane, right? We’re not digging ditches. We’re not building roads. We’re writing jokes or words for a living," Michael Schur a Parks and Recreation writer told the Los Angeles Times in an article about the agreement, which made it possible to avoid a strike. "It feels very embarrassing to think of ourselves as a labor force. But in our little world that’s what we are. We're labor and they're management."

Union Wages Improve Wages For Non-Union Workers

Wage growth remains pretty stagnant for most workers, even as high earners are reaping higher earnings. But even workers who choose not to unionize (or face hurdles in doing so) can benefit from proximity to union members because of competition.
"As an economic sector becomes more unionized, nonunion employers pay more to retain qualified workers and norms of higher pay and better conditions become standard," the EPI says. "For example, if a union hospital is across town from a nonunion hospital and the two hospitals are competing for workers, then the nonunion workers will benefit from the presence of the union hospital."
The organization gives the example of the impact of the Services Trade Council Union (STCU), which agitated to raise wages for its workers (housekeepers, lifeguards, cast members, and other service workers) at Disney World in 2014 to a minimum of $10 per hour.
Advertisement
"Disney then extended the raises to all its 70,000 Orlando employees, including nonunion employees," the EPI says. "According to the Orlando Sentinel, the wage increases prompted much of Orlando’s hospitality and retail sector, including Westgate Resorts, to raise wages."

Unions Can Help Neutralize Gender And Race Wage Gaps

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unions can have an outsized positive impact on certain groups, including women from a variety of races and ethnicities, and people of color more generally.
Just over 46% of today's unionized workers are women, and when looking at the impact of unionizing along gender lines, the EPI says that collective bargaining can serve as a corrective to wage discrepancies by increasing transparency. "Workers know what other workers are making," they write. "Hourly wages for women represented by unions are 9.2% higher on average than for non-unionized women with comparable characteristics. Union-represented workers in service occupations (which include food service and janitorial services) make 87% more in total compensation and 56.1% more in wages than their nonunion counterparts."
Analyzing by race, the EPI adds that unions often boost the wages of low-wage workers, who tend to be non-white workers in greater numbers.
"Black workers for example are more likely than white workers to be in a union and are more likely to be low- and middle-wage workers, who get a bigger pay boost for being in a union than do higher-wage workers," they write, adding. "Hispanic workers have slightly lower union coverage than white workers but have much higher union wage advantages."
Advertisement