Decline in Unions a Leading Factor in Income Inequality

By James Parks

Unions and Inequality

AFL-CIO

With union members under attack across the country, a new study shows how important unions are to the economy. The study, “Union Decline Accounts for Much of the Rise in Wage Inequality,” published in the August issue of the “American Sociological Review,” says the decline in the percentage of workers who belong to unions is worsening income inequality and closely parallels the decline of the middle-class.

In fact, the decline of union membership explains about a fifth of the increase in wage inequality among women and about a third among men, says Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard University and co-author of the study. According to Western:

Our study underscores the role of unions as an equalizing force in the labor market.

Even nonunion workers benefit from stronger unions as employers raise wages and increase employee benefits, says co-author Jake Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington:

For generations, unions have been the core institution advocating for more equitable wage distribution. Today, when unions—at least in the private sector—have largely disappeared, that means that this voice for equity has faded dramatically. People now have very different ideas about what’s acceptable in terms of pay distribution.

Since the union membership began to decline in the 1970s, the link between worker productivity and wages has been cut, causing employees to work harder for less and less money. Between 1980 and 2008, nationwide worker productivity grew by 75 percent, while workers’ inflation-adjusted average wages increased by only 22.6 percent, the study says.

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James Parks works for the national AFL-CIO. This article first appeared on the California Labor Federation site.

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