Monday, July 09, 2018

Unions combat inequality

New evidence shows that unions played a major role in reducing income inequality in the United States in the decades when organized labor was strong. It also demonstrates that the decline in union power since the 1960s — which may be exacerbated as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision — has contributed to the widening gap between rich and poor.

The new insights come from a working paper, “Unions and Inequality Over the Twentieth Century: New Evidence from Survey Data,” by four economists: Henry Farber, Daniel Herbst and Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton, and Suresh Naidu of Columbia. They establish that unions have constrained income inequality far beyond their own membership ranks.

 Unions have indirectly increased pay at firms nervous that their own employees might organize. Unions have also lobbied for higher minimum wages and pushed to hold down executive salaries. They have also advocated broader access to health care, countering a key channel through which income inequality can harm all of society.

In the new study, the four scholars have mined newly available Gallup Organization data going back to the 1930s, based on surveys of American households that include questions about political beliefs as well as union membership, education and income. A rich trove of these older surveys is publicly available at the Roper Center at Cornell University. The four economists painstakingly cleaned and coded hundreds of these surveys spanning nearly 90 years. The data encompass the growth of unions during the 1930s and ‘40s, their heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and their slow decline to the present. Union workers now earn about 20 percent more than nonunion workers in similar jobs. Remarkably, this union premium has held steady since the 1930s. Throughout this period, the biggest boost from union membership has gone to the least educated workers, who have, in turn, driven the rise and fall of union membership. The decades following World War II, when unskilled workers formed the union movement’s backbone, marked the most rapid decreases in income inequality. Wages for nonwhite workers were particularly strong then. But increasing wages for low-skilled union members is just one channel through which unions can reduce income inequality. Unions can also affect the earnings of nonunion workers. To capture such effects, the researchers broadened their lens to include the entire distribution of workers and their wages beyond those who are in typically unionized jobs and industries. They found that, going back to the 1930s, more unions meant more income equality. During years and in states where workers were more likely to be unionized, income inequality was lower.

Incomes in the United States are now as unequal as they were in the 1920s. The gulf between rich and poor will widen if unions are weakened further.

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