State by State, Unions Matter

Monday, 01 March 2010 10:39 By Dick Meister, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

State by State, Unions Matter
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Steve Rhodes, NinJA999)

Union members invariably have better pay and benefits than nonunion workers. But, as a new study shows, the number of workers who've joined unions varies widely from state to state.

Even in some states with a relatively high number of union members, the number is only a small percentage of the state's overall workforce, according to the study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

For example: Texas, the country's second-largest state, has the eighth-highest number of union members - 615,000. But that's only six percent of the Texas workforce. It is, in fact, the country's fourth-lowest rate of unionization and less than half the national average of 13.6 percent.

It's no coincidence that Texas is a so-called right-to-work state that prohibits unions from negotiating contracts that include union shop provisions requiring workers to join the union that represents them in dealing with employers. So why should workers in those states join the union when they can get the union's services and the pay and benefits it negotiates without even paying dues?

Twenty-one other states have right-to-work laws, most in the South, Southwest and Midwest. They include North and South Carolina, where the percentage of workers in unions is at a national low of less than five percent. It's at a national high of more than 25 percent in New York and Hawaii.

California, the nation's largest state, has the most union members - 2.6 million, or 18 percent of its workers. At the other end of the national scale, the numbers drop way down to Wyoming's total of less than 20,000 unionized workers, only nine percent of that right-to-work state's workforce.

Public employees, who make up 10 to 20 percent of the states' workforces, have unionization rates ranging from below 30 percent to more than 60 percent.

But what, specifically, do they and the 17 million other US workers who've unionized get that other workers don't get?

The Center's study found that union members' pay is generally about 15 percent higher than that of nonunion workers - roughly $2.50, or 15 percent more an hour, for an average hourly rate of $6.25. Union members also typically get benefits that many, if not most, nonunion workers lack, such as employer-financed health insurance and pensions.

The conclusion should be obvious. The study' s author, John Schmitt, noted that the findings show clearly that "unions substantially improved the pay and benefits of workers in every state."

Beyond that, unionized workers have a greater say, not only about their working conditions, but also in political affairs and community activities, given organized labor's prominence in such matters.

A large part of the reason many workers nevertheless remain outside of unions is the notoriously lax enforcement of the laws that were designed to guarantee working Americans the unfettered right to unionization.

His findings, said Schmitt, "strongly suggest that better protection of workers' right to unionize would have a substantial positive impact on the pay and benefits of workers in every state."

The Employee Free Choice Act that's long been stalled in Congress would provide the needed protection by cracking down on the widespread violation of labor laws. Many employers illegally interfere in unionization drives by disciplining, firing or otherwise intimidating union organizers and supporters. Even those employers who recognize a union as their employees' representative often refuse to bargain with the union and discipline employees who protest.

Until the Free Choice Act or something much like it is enacted, the growth of unions in every state will be stunted.

Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2010 14:27