Need Better Benefits? Join a Union

Friday, 13 August 2010 11:49 By Dick Meister, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Union members, as everyone knows - or should know - typically earn more than nonunion workers doing the same job. And now comes the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) with a new report showing that unionized workers also have much better benefits than nonunion workers.

An earlier BLS report on wages showed that union members average $4.95 an hour more than nonunion workers doing the same work, a difference of nearly $10,000 a year.

The unionized workers' benefit advantage is also substantial. For instance: 93 percent have access to health insurance, whereas the percentage of nonunion workers with access is almost 25 percent lower. The report also shows that the unionized workers have lower co-pays for doctor visits, prescription drugs, and other health care costs they share with employers.

The other health care advantages are many. Unionized workers on average pay 11 percent of their premiums for individual coverage, for instance, and 18 percent of their premiums for family coverage. The percentage nonunion workers have to pay for individual coverage is almost double the percentage union workers pay for coverage, and triple the percentage unionists who pay to cover their families.

What's more, unionized workers are much more likely to have retirement benefits, employer-paid sick leave and paid personal leave, as Michael Kuchta, treasurer of the AFL-CIO's International Labor Communications Association, notes in his report of the BLS findings.

It's a lot different, however, for part-time and temporary workers, as it is for lower-paid workers generally and for workers at large employers compared with those working for small employers.

Only 24 percent of part-time workers have access to health insurance, for instance, and only 29 percent have retirement plans, compared with almost 80 percent of full-timers. Only about one-fourth of the part-time workers have paid sick leave, compared with almost 80 percent of full-timers.

It's even worse for workers in the bottom quarter of the wage scale. Only 41 percent have access to health insurance, only 43 percent have retirement plans, only 35 percent paid sick leave.

But up in the top quarter of the wage scale, more than 90 percent have access to health insurance and nearly 90 percent have retirement plans and paid sick leave.

Workers for small employers don't do much better than low-scale workers. Only slightly more than half of those working for employers with fewer than 100 workers have retirement plans, for example. Only 60 percent have access to health insurance, compared with the 90 percent of workers for larger employers.

"Amid all the talk about the need to free up small businesses to create new jobs," says the AFL-CIO's Michael Kuchta, "the BLS report offers a reminder that jobs at small companies may not be all that great for workers."

Kuchta also notes findings in another BLS report that public employees typically have better benefits than workers in private employment. About 90 percent have access to health care, for example. But conventional wisdom to the contrary, the better benefits are not necessarily in exchange for lower pay.

Kuchta says public employees generally are paid less than workers in private employment with similar education, experience and credentials. But they are paid more, on average, than other workers. That, as he notes, is what "enemies of the public sector have seized on in their crusade to shrink, starve and privatize government services."

Whatever the reason, public employees do generally have much better benefits than most other workers. About 90 percent have access to health insurance, retirement plans and paid sick leave. More than 60 percent have paid personal leave, almost twice that of privately employed workers.

All those figures and comparisons can be confusing. But whatever the precise figures, the new federal report yet again makes obvious the advantages of union membership. It means more pay, more and better benefits and lots of other advantages that the report doesn't cover.

But though the figures make clear why many more workers would want to unionize their workplaces, they are, nevertheless, kept from it by employer interference. It's interference that's allowed by the labor laws. The laws must be reformed if we are to democratically honor the wishes of American workers.

Last modified on Friday, 13 August 2010 11:49