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Workers Make $1.3 Million More Through Their Careers When They’re in a Union

This is more than the lifetime salary premium that typically comes with a college degree, researchers found.

People hold signs saying No More Side Hustles and Union Strong before a game at SeatGeek Stadium on September 25, 2021, in Bridgeview, Illinois.

As a union wave grips workers across the U.S. seeking more control over their working conditions and wages, new research illustrates the vast material benefits waiting in store for workers if they unionize their workplaces.

A new study published in Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Review finds that workers who are in a union throughout their careers make $1.3 million more than workers who were never in a union; union members typically make $3.37 million in lifetime earnings, versus $2.08 million for nonunion workers – an increase of over 60 percent.

This wage increase comes despite the fact that unionized workers also retire earlier than their nonunionized counterparts, the study authors found. Further, union benefits don’t remain flat, but rather grow the longer a worker remains in a union, the study found.

This is a remarkable increase in lifetime wages, and represents a higher lifetime wage increase than that earned by workers with a college degree, who earn between $650,000 and $900,000 more in their lifetimes, previous research has demonstrated.

The researchers tracked earnings of men whose careers roughly spanned the 1960s through the 1970s to their retirements. While other research has long shown that union members make more than their nonunion counterparts at single points in time, the study authors say examining lifetime earnings can provide a more comprehensive picture of how union membership affects wages.

The study authors, University of Minnesota sociology professor Tom VanHeuvelen and social inequality researcher and Columbia University fellow Zach Parolin, say that the decline in unionization that the U.S. has seen over the past decades has had a sizable effect on the workforce and wages, which have remained stagnant. Indeed, union membership has fallen to historic lows in recent decades, while income inequality has accelerated.

The study shows “the sizable consequences of deunionization that have been playing out over the past half-century,” VanHeuvelen told Truthout via email. In the article, VanHeuvelen and Parolin write that declining union rates are “central” to growing rates of income inequality.

He added that the research shows that unionization can be a powerful economic tool for this generation of workers. “For the cohort of men who we tracked across their careers, there was a second pathway of upward economic attainment via a unionized career that provided a boost to lifetime earnings equivalent to a college degree, but this alternative pathway has largely been lost,” he said.

The research at least in part rebuts anti-union arguments often presented by union-busting employers. Employers frequently use the cost of union dues – typically a small portion, about 1 to 2 percent of a workers’ pay – to discourage workers from unionizing. The research demonstrates that the pay premium that workers get once they unionize and stay in a union can far outweigh the amount that a worker would pay to a union – even before nonmonetary benefits like health insurance, paid leave and improved working conditions that can come with unionization are taken into account.

Unionization has been surging across the country over the past year. Recently released data from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) shows that, in Fiscal Year 2022, union filings rose by over 50 percent over the previous year. Labor experts say that workers are exercising their power as the country sees growing wage inequality, stagnant worker wages and, in some cases, declining working conditions since the pandemic.

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