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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Let All Voices Be Heard.

Union Representation: A Bride to Economic Security and Equal Opportunity for All Workers

The fair employment laws of the 1960's were passed to eliminate race, gender and ethnicity as stumbling blocks on the road to economic security and prosperity. These laws have been a boon to all workers, including white men, women, and racial minorities. Yet even now, more than 40 years later, women and people of color still earn less than their white male counterparts. They are more likely than white men to be concentrated in low wage work and less likely to be covered by employer-provided benefits such as health care and retirement plans. Incomes are lower and poverty greater for minority and female-headed households. People of color are more likely to be uninsured than non-minorities and when insured, are more likely than non-minorities to receive health coverage through public programs like Medicaid (see Appendix Table A).

One reason these differences in economic well-being persist is because the promise of equal opportunity is not a guarantee of economic security. Unions, however, help close the gaps, raising wages and improving benefits for all workers, especially for women and minorities. Enabling workers to freely exercise the right to form unions is thus one of the most effective, efficient, and comprehensive ways to translate promised equal opportunity into real economic security for women and minorities.

Unions Raise Wages for Women and People of Color

In 2006, the typical union worker earned 30 percent more than a non-union worker. Union wage premiums are even higher for women and most minority workers. Among workers overall, median weekly earnings in 2006 were 31 percent greater for women in unions than for non-union women, 36 percent greater for unionized African Americans than for their non-union counterparts, 8 percent greater for unionized Asian Americans than their non-union counterparts, and a whopping 46 percent greater for Hispanic union members (and 49 percent greater for unionized Hispanic men) than for non-union Hispanics. Even after taking into account factors that affect wages (experience, education, region, industry, occupation and marital status), union wage premiums for women and people of color remain sizable—10.5 percent for women, 20.3 percent for African Americans, 21.9 percent for Hispanics and 16.7 percent for Asian Americans.

Women and minorities benefit so much from union representation, in part, because unions raise wages more for workers at the bottom of the pay scale than for those with higher earnings. Women and minorities are over-represented in low wage jobs relative to their share of the workforce and under-represented in higher-paid positions; hence, they benefit disproportionately from union representation (see Appendix Table A, "share earning…"). Likewise, the union wage premium is substantial in certain occupational groupings with large numbers of female and minority workers. For example, women, African Americans, and Latinos are over-represented in service occupations relative to their representation in the workforce overall; the union wage advantage in the broad service occupations category is 58 percent. Women hold 75 percent of office and administrative support jobs, where the union wage advantage is 30 percent. And African Americans and Hispanics, who are 25 percent of the employed workforce overall, are 35 percent of workers in transportation and material moving occupations, where the union wage advantage is 47 percent.

Unions Improve Benefits for Women and Minority Workers

In addition to earning higher wages, workers in unions are more likely to have employer-provided benefits, and their benefits are richer than those of non-union employees. The union benefits advantage is a boon for women and people of color, making it more likely that, in unionized workplaces, they will enjoy benefits parity with white men (see Appendix Table A, "share with employer-provided…").

As shown in Appendix Tables B and C, a larger share of union members than non-union workers have job-based health coverage; their coverage is more comprehensive; they are less likely to contribute to the costs of coverage; and if they contribute, their contributions are smaller. Not surprisingly, union members are far less likely to be uninsured than their non-union counterparts: only 2.5 percent were uninsured in 2003, one-sixth the share of uninsured non-union workers (15 percent).

Union members are also more likely than non-union workers to have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans and far more likely to have access to guaranteed pensions, i.e., defined benefit plans. (Appendix Table B) Sixty-nine percent of union members have access to guaranteed pensions compared with only 15 percent of non-union workers.

Quality of life benefits like paid leave and education and training assistance are also more available to

union members than to their non-union counterparts. Union members are more likely to have paid holidays (and more of them), as well as paid sick leave, vacation, personal leave, funeral leave, jury duty, and paid military leave. The union advantage with respect to these benefits is again especially important for women and people of color because of their greater concentration in low-wage work. According to the Family and Work Institute, low-paid workers are generally far less likely than high-wage earners to have paid sick leave, holidays and vacations. For many low-wage workers, a union contract is the only means for obtaining access to such benefits.

Finally, union members are more likely to have access to job-related education and training (57 percent of union members compared with only 48 percent of non-union workers) and to non-job-related education (24 percent of union members receive such benefits compared with only 14 percent of non-union workers). Access to such benefits helps workers move up within their companies and industries and better positions them to respond to job loss and downsizing in industries undergoing major contractions during periods of economic transformation.

Unions Help Immigrants Enter the Economic Mainstream

The waves of eastern and southern European immigrants in the early part of the twentieth century were routinely exploited by American industry. Even as they powered—often under grueling conditions—the factories that propelled America's economic ascendancy, these immigrants shared little of the economic prosperity they helped to create. These workers organized into unions, and as a result, these immigrant groups became part of the economic mainstream, escaping a life of poverty and ghettoization, and entering the middle class. Now a generation of leaders and scholars from eastern and southern European backgrounds owes a debt to the unions that gave their families the economic foundation necessary to provide their children with educational and career opportunities.

Today's immigrant communities are arriving at a time when workers' ability to form unions has been seriously compromised by aggressive employer opposition and exploitation of weaknesses in our labor laws. Moreover, immigrants today are concentrated in the low-wage service industry, which has been particularly difficult to organize under current labor law, and they arrive through a broken immigration system that drastically limits their options and enhances opportunities for exploitation. Restoring the freedom to organize, with a resulting strengthening of the labor movement, would give these new immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa the opportunities that past immigrants were given, providing significant improvements to immigrants' wages and benefits, along with greater economic opportunities for succeeding generations.

Unions Help Workers Fight Discrimination and Win Equal Opportunity

Beyond raising wages and improving benefits, union representation bolsters protections against discrimination for women and people of color and gives them more tools to fight for equal opportunity. The added heft unions bring in challenging discrimination is critical: fair employment laws ban a panoply of practices that have the intention or effect of discriminating, but equal opportunity is not a self-enforcing promise. Vindicating non-discrimination rights requires workers to lodge charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and often, file suit against employers. Litigation is costly, time-consuming and intimidating, imposing burdens most workers, particularly low-wage earners, simply cannot bear. Union representation places equal opportunity more in reach for minorities and women.

Collective Bargaining Agreements — Helping All Workers, Particularly Women and Racial Minorities

Collective bargaining agreements set terms and conditions of employment in unionized workplaces, making employment practices more transparent and, hence, less likely to be arbitrary and discriminatory. In addition, union contracts often include explicit bans on employment discrimination or provide for specific remedial measures to correct longstanding inequities, adding another layer of protection and often creating rights beyond those covered under existing laws. Union contracts also establish grievance and arbitration systems that enable workers to challenge decisions they believe are unfair, discriminatory, arbitrary or otherwise in violation of the contract. While not a substitute for the right to go to court, access to the grievance process is important to women and people of color, because it is less expensive, time-consuming and contentious than litigation; it engages the union directly in representing aggrieved workers; and it promotes faster resolution of disputes.

Last, as our system of workplace protections is fragmented and incomplete and many lawful actions are nevertheless arbitrary, unreasonable, and unfair, a union contract fills the gaps of this fragmented framework. In this manner, a union contract confers greater rights on workers and gives them an accessible means to vindicate those rights. This fill-in-the-blanks role of a union contract is especially important to women and people of color because of their greater concentration in low wage jobs, where legal protections are often more limited and arbitrary employer conduct is frequently the norm.

Unions as Agents for Enforcing Labor and Employment Protections

Labor and employment agencies are strapped for investigative resources, and hence, enforcement of workplace protections and rights is often dependent on worker-generated complaints. The presence of a union on the job makes the initiation of such complaints easier. In the area of workplace safety and health, for example, worksite unions are more likely to develop and implement workplace health and safety programs, including complaint processes. Unions' commitment to safe and healthy workplaces is important to all workers, but takes on even greater importance for Latino workers, because of their growing concentration in dangerous industries, such as construction, and their rising incidence of workplace injuries and deaths.

Unions as Initiators of Systemic Workplace Change Benefiting Women and People of Color

Unions have a full panoply of tools they can use—and have used—to end systemic workplace discrimination and maximize the potential to achieve equal opportunity and employment equity. For example, the United Steelworkers negotiated the affirmative action program that led to the Supreme Court's decision in United Steelworkers Union v. Weber (443 U.S. 193 [1979]), upholding voluntary goals to correct conspicuous racial imbalances in the workplace. The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have combined organizing and political and legislative action to win employment status, union recognition, and higher wages for hundreds of thousands of home care workers, most of whom are low-income women of color. The International Union of Electrical Workers (now merged with the Communications Workers) sued General Electric over the company's refusal to cover pregnancy under its employee benefits plan, and after losing the Supreme Court case, was a leader in the successful fight to amend Title VII to bar pregnancy discrimination. Unions have also challenged wage-setting practices that applied different standards to "men's" and "women's" jobs, helping to establish the legal precedent that Title VII's ban on sex-based wage discrimination is broader than the Equal Pay Act's requirement of equal pay for equal work. Through these groundbreaking initiatives and others, unions have helped open vast opportunities for women and minorities to enter jobs previously closed to them, secure benefits long denied to them, and win wage adjustments and back pay that translated promised equal opportunity into real economic security.

No one suggests that unions have been unerringly non-discriminatory or that their relationship with the civil rights movement has been without blemish. But it is indisputably true that through organizing, bargaining, litigation, legislative, and political advocacy, unions and the union movement have played a signature role in advancing the rights and interests of people of color and women, in the workplace and in our society overall. Unions can best play this role when the right of workers to organize and bargain is fully protected, and can be freely exercised. But as described above, this right has been ruthlessly stripped away, to the detriment of all workers, particularly women and minorities.

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