To Improve Their Jobs
Americans have always joined together—whether in parent teacher associations or local community organizations—to solve problems and make changes that improve their lives and their communities. Through unions, people join together to strive for improvements at the place where they spend a large portion of their waking hours: work.
Unions are important because they help set the standards for education, skill levels, wages, working conditions, and quality of life for workers. Union-negotiated wages and benefits are generally superior to what non-union workers receive. Most union contracts provide far more protections than state and federal laws.
What this report finds: The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored both the importance of unions in giving workers a collective voice in the workplace and the urgent need to reform U.S. labor laws to arrest the erosion of those rights. During the crisis, unionized workers have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, paid sick time, and a say in the terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs. These pandemic-specific benefits build on the many ways unions help workers. Following are just a few of the benefits, according to the latest data:
- Unionized workers (workers covered by a union contract) earn on average 11.2% more in wages than nonunionized peers (workers in the same industry and occupation with similar education and experience).
- Black and Hispanic workers get a larger boost from unionization. Black workers represented by a union are paid 13.7% more than their nonunionized peers. Hispanic workers represented by unions are paid 20.1% more than their nonunionized peers.
What is the Labor Movement?
Labor unions are groups of workers organizing and taking collective action to improve their lives. The labor movement is all unions, union members and union organizations acting collectively.
There are approximately 15 million workers in unions and employee associations in the United States and approximately 4.5 million union workers in Canada.
What do Unions Do?
Unions are the principal means for workers to organize and protect their rights on the job. The union contract or “collective bargaining agreement” establishes the basic terms and conditions of work. Unions give workers a voice with employers and provide a means to gain a measure of security and dignity on the job. Most unions maintain a paid professional staff to manage their activities.
Unions pursue strategies and activities that serve the interests of their members. These include representing members and negotiating with employers, recruiting new members and engaging in political action when necessary to support policies that improve working conditions for all workers.
What is Collective Bargaining?
The simple phrase, collective bargaining, covers a wide variety of subjects and involves hundreds of thousands of union members in the process.
Representatives of labor and management negotiate over wages and benefits, hours and working conditions. The settlement reached is spelled out in a written document or contract. The contract normally contains a grievance procedure to settle disputes. It is the job of the union to enforce the contract on behalf of the members.
It has not been easy to establish collective bargaining as a permanent part of American life. The efforts of unions to establish the concept of collective bargaining are a little known, but very important part of American history, involving great sacrifice and bitter struggle. Historically, management took the position that because they owned the means of production, they had the sole right to determine the conditions of employment. Collective bargaining forms the cornerstone of industrial democracy.
Why Are Unions Important?
Workers formed unions so that they could have some say over wages, hours, working conditions, and the many other problems that arise in the relationship between a worker and employer. Unions are important because they help set the standards for education, skill levels, wages, working conditions, and quality of life for workers. Union-negotiated wages and benefits are generally superior to what non-union workers receive.
Most union contracts provide far more protections than state and federal laws. For example, in many states there is no legal right for workers to take a break. More importantly, most states follow a legal doctrine called “employment at will” and non-union workers can be fired for reasons that might be arbitrary or for no reason at all.
Unions also work to establish laws improving job conditions for their members through legislation at the national, state and local level. This ultimately benefits all workers. The 8-hour work day is an example of a positive change won by unions that affects everyone.
Are Unions Still Important to Working People Today?
Unions are more important today than they ever were. It is no secret that in a global economy, the nature of work is changing and some employers resist unions. Research consistently shows that far more workers would join unions if anti-union campaigns weren’t so common. Misinformation and intimidation – including firing union supporters – are routine responses when workers try to form unions.
Workers have less power when they act individually, but acting together as a group they can effect real change. Unions are the collective voice of workers. Unions are the workers’ watchdogs, using their power to ensure that workers rights under the law are protected.
In addition to ensuring fairness and equitable treatment, many employers recognize that there are advantages to offering workers better wages and benefits. Companies concerned about long-term profitability want to maintain a supply of skilled labor and minimize turnover. The basic reason for this is simple: if unions provide a voice to workers, the number of dissatisfied workers who leave is reduced. Another valuable function of an organized workforce is that workers are able to contribute their knowledge about the job, which helps increase productivity.
Why Join a Labor Union?
As a worker, you have a federally guaranteed right to form or join a union, and bargain collectively with your employer. Business agents and/or stewards are the representatives of the union who help workers deal with unfair treatment, discrimination and with other workplace issues. This helps balance the power that an employer has over individual employees.
Belonging to a union gives you rights under the law that you do not have as an individual. Once you have formed a union, your employer must bargain with your union over your wages, benefits, hours and working conditions.
Union workers, on average, earn higher wages and get more benefits than workers who don’t have a voice on the job with a union.
ADVOCACY POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE
12 policies that would boost worker rights, safety, and wages
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a reality that U.S. workers have long confronted—U.S. labor law fails to protect working people. For decades, union leaders and workers’ rights advocates have called on policymakers to reform a badly broken system, warning that the erosion of unions—and of worker power more broadly—was contributing to extreme economic inequality and threatening our overall democracy.
In spite of efforts to push policy reforms, the U.S. entered the COVID-19 pandemic with a weak system of labor protections, historically low rates of union density, and extreme economic inequality. As a result, working people, particularly low-wage workers—who are disproportionately women and workers of color—have largely borne the costs of the pandemic. While providing the “essential” services we rely on, these workers have been forced to work without protective gear, have no access to paid sick leave, and when workers have spoken up about health and safety concerns they have been fired. Clearly, a system that allows this dynamic must be reformed.
Reform must be responsive to the lessons we have learned from the challenges working people have faced during the pandemic. One of the main lessons is the need for and power of workers’ collective voice in the workplace. Where workers have been able to act collectively and through their union, they have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, and paid sick time. Unionized workers have had a voice in how their employers navigate the pandemic, including negotiating for terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs.
Research shows the advantages workers in unions have over nonunionized workers. Workers with strong unions have been able to set industry standards for wages and benefits that help all workers, both union and nonunion (Rhinehart and McNicholas 2020). Never in recent history has this dynamic been more clear. Never has it been more important that all workers have a voice in the workplace and access to a union. Workers’ lives and the health and safety of working families depends on their ability to have a say in how they do their jobs.
The right to a union and collective bargaining is also directly relevant to our urgent national conversation around racial inequality in its various forms, including economic disparities by race. Unions and collective bargaining help shrink the Black–white wage gap, due to the dual facts that Black workers are more likely than white workers to be represented by a union and Black workers who are in unions get a larger boost to wages from being in a union than white workers do (Farber et al. 2018).1 This means that the decline of unionization has played a significant role in the expansion of the Black–white wage gap over the last four decades, and that an increase in unionization could help reverse those trends (Wilson and Rodgers 2016).
It is essential that policymakers prioritize reforms that promote workers’ collective power. The political response to the economic and public health crises spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has repeatedly failed to do so (McNicholas 2020). However, the pandemic will require sustained intervention. The depth of the economic crisis will necessitate additional legislative action. This provides an opportunity to workers, worker advocates, union leaders, and social justice advocates to demand that policymakers place the needs of working people ahead of corporate interests and deliver long overdue policy interventions and reforms that fulfill the promise made to U.S. workers nearly 100 years ago: the right to a union and collective bargaining. This crisis will continue to reshape our economy, our workforce, and our democracy. We must demand policies that create a more just economy and democracy.
This report examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on working people and our economy, discusses the importance of unions and workers’ collective action in establishing an equitable economy and labor market, and recommends policy reforms to promote workers’ collective power and grow union density. There is already widespread political support for many of these important reforms, including the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House of Representatives early this year. And, while it is important to consider new structures that promote workers’ collective power, this report focuses on practical policy reforms that build on existing legal frameworks and structures of worker power. These reforms should be a priority for the first 100 days of any new administration that is interested in using its power to halt and reverse the four-decades-old trend of rising inequality and near wage stagnation for most workers—a trend that has been exacerbated and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
THE CORONAVIRUS ECONOMIC CRISIS IS NOT CLOSE TO OVER
The coronavirus recession came swiftly. In February, the unemployment rate was at a 50-year low of 3.5%. The unemployment rate began rising in March, and in April, as fear of the virus and social-distancing measures shut down nonessential parts of the economy, the unemployment rate shot up to 14.7%—with the Bureau of Labor Statistics noting that the unemployment rate would have been 19.5% in April if not for 7.5 million workers who were misclassified as “employed, not at work” instead of being classified as temporarily unemployed (BLS 2020).
As the economy began reopening in May, some workers who had been temporarily laid off in March and April began to be rehired, but as of July—as the virus surged in part because reopening was not accompanied by robust workplace safety and public health measures—progress had slowed dramatically. Given that the labor market remains 12.9 million jobs below where it was before the virus hit and the unemployment rate remains higher than it ever was during the Great Recession, a dramatically slowing recovery means the U.S. labor market is likely to be very weak for an extended period (Gould 2020b).
The danger of extended labor market weakness is particularly acute if Congress does not provide substantial additional fiscal aid (Bivens 2020; Bivens and Cooper 2020). The Congressional Budget Office predicts that if Congress does nothing, the unemployment rate will average 10.5% in the fourth quarter of this year, 8.4% in 2021, and over 7% in 2022—still more than twice where it was before the recession hit (CBO 2020). Without significant intervention by Congress, we are going to face a sustained period of economic weakness that will do lasting harm to the economy and the people who make up the economy, and will greatly exacerbate existing inequalities.
The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt broadly, but not equally. Low-wage workers have experienced vastly greater job loss due to the fact that low-wage jobs are concentrated in sectors that are getting hit particularly hard because they involve more social contact (such as restaurants and bars, hotels, personal services, events, and brick-and-mortar retail). Further, due to racial and ethnic differences in labor market outcomes caused by occupational segregation, discrimination, and other disparities rooted in systemic racism, Black, Latinx, and Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities have experienced much greater job loss. While white non-Hispanic workers saw a peak unemployment rate of 12.8%, Black non-Hispanic workers saw a peak unemployment rate of 16.7%, Hispanic workers saw an unemployment rate of 18.5%, and AAPI workers saw an unemployment rate of 15.0%. This recession also saw greater job loss among women than among men, and, at the intersection of race and gender, unemployment rates peaked at incredibly high rates for women of color: 17.3% for Black non-Hispanic women, 20.5% for Hispanic women, and 16.1% for AAPI women.
While a common conception may be that “everyone is working from home,” survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics find that in fact fewer than 30% of workers can work from home (BLS-ATUS 2019). Black and Hispanic workers are even less likely to have the opportunity to telework. Less than one in five Black workers (19.7%) and only one in six Hispanic workers (16.2%) can telework (Gould and Shierholz 2020).