Guest poster Janelle Jones, Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, gives Girlwpen an update on her most recent CEPR report. Janelle researches and writes on a variety of U.S. labor market topics, such as unemployment, job quality, and unions. (Bio here.) Last summer she wrote Has Education Paid Off for Black Workers? The project continues with this new study that asks what is the union advantage for black workers? At the end, Janelle puts the new study in context with her earlier one.
So far this year, we’ve had some pretty mixed union news. The workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted not to join the UAW but just this week the NLRB ruled in favor of Northwestern University football players’ ability to unionize. Even in the midst of inconsistent union success, John Schmitt and I find that unions still have a significant positive impact on black workers’ wages and benefits.
We’ve all heard that unions are dying. While that may be an exaggeration, even for black workers, the racial group with the highest levels of unionization, the share in a union has been falling continuously since the early 1980s. In 1983, more than one in four black workers (27.1 percent) was in a union, compared to only 13.6 percent in 2013. Over this entire period, black men have had higher unionization rates than black women, although that gap is closing.
In the face of this unionization decline for black workers, are unions still having an impact? Well, yes. Even after controlling for systematic difference between the unionized and non-unionized workforce, unionization has a significant positive impact. For the years 2008-2013, the union wage premium is 15.6 percent for all black workers, 18.1 percent for black men and 13.1 percent for black women. That is, black workers in a union earn 15 percent more per hour than their non-unionized counterparts. Now, that’s a raise!
Next, we examine the union advantage for black workers by education and find the largest gains in wages and benefits for the less educated. Unionization raised the hourly wage for black workers with less than a four-year college degree by nearly 20 percent (19.3 percent for those with less than a high school degree, 19.4 percent for those with only a high school degree, and 17.7 percent for those with some college but short a four-year degree). The union wage premium for these workers is almost double the (still noticeable) 10.3 percent premium for black workers with a four-year degree.
Finally, we turn to the effect of unionization for black workers in traditionally low-wage occupations, including security guards, janitors, and food prep workers. While black workers accounted for just over 11 percent of total employment in our analysis period (2008-2013), they made up over 18 percent of all workers in the 15 low-wage occupations we analyzed. Similar to workers with less formal education, the union wage premium is nearly 20 percent larger for black workers in these occupations, compared to the 15.6 percent premium for black workers overall.
In the report, we also look at the effect of unionization on health insurance coverage and retirement plans for black workers. For each of the breakdowns listed above, gender, education level, and low-wage occupations, black workers in unions were much more likely to have these on-the-job benefits. For example, for black women, unionization increased the likelihood of employer (or union) provided health insurance by nearly one-third (31.1 percent) and a retirement plan by more than one-third (41.0 percent).
The promise of unions looks like an important consideration for black women. Black women—who face double-discrimination based on race and on gender–find themselves by most measures at the bottom of the pay and benefit scale. The most commonly offered solution is to increase educational attainment. But we’ve done that. Black women have already doubled graduation rates since1979, and the share of black women with less than a high school degree has fallen by more than 20 percent. Yet labor market difficulties persist. Our research shows that one thing that can complement increases in education in a concrete way would be increasing unionization, which offers black women higher pay and substantially better benefits to help overcome, at least in part, the double-discrimination.