Why Unions Matter Library

The Library is organized into the following 8 sections:

Section 1: Union Organizing Efforts
Section 2: Public Sector Unionization
Section 3: Anti-worker Threats and Actions
Section 4: The Union Difference
Section 5: Unionization and Inequality
Section 6: The Right to Work Experience
Section 7: Anti-union Arguments
Section 8: General References

Section 1: Union Organizing Efforts

a. Joe DeManuelle-Hall, “Prime Day for Amazon Protests,” Labor Notes, July 17, 2019.

b. Colin Lecher, “How Amazon automatically tracks and fires warehouse workers for ‘productivity’,” The Verge, April 25, 2019.

c. Steven Greenhouse, “Dear Delta Airlines: Video Games and Beer Cannot Compete with Joining a Union,” The Guardian, May 11, 2019.

d. Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner and Joseph A McCartin,”Why the Labor Movement has Failed – And How to Fix It,” Boston Review, May 1, 2019.

e. Lauren Kaori Gurley, “Another Big Victory for Labor,” The New Republic, April 23, 2019.

f. Steven Greenhouse, “Why Newsrooms Are Unionizing Now,” Nieman Reports, March 31, 2009.

g. Doug Henwood, “There Are So Many Things That We Can Learn From This Strike—An Interview with Alex Caputo-Pearl and Jane McAlevey,” Jacobin, February 8, 2019.

h. Rachel M. Cohen, “Workers Just Notched a Rare Win in Federal Court,” The Intercept, January 3, 2019.

i.. Daniel Moattar, “How Graduate Unions Are Winning—and Scaring the Hell out of Bosses—in the Trump Era,” In These Times, November 29, 2018.

j. Celine McNicholas, Samantha Sanders, and Heidi Shierholz, “First Day Fairness, An agenda to build worker power and ensure job quality,” Economic Policy Institute, August 22, 2018.

k. Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, “In the Face of Janus, AFL-CIO Launches Nationwide Ad Campaign Calling on Working People to Organize,” Portside, May 29, 2018

l. Sarah Jaffee, “In the Age of Trump and ‘Janus v. AFSCME,’ Labor Must Rethink Its Organizing Strategies: Interview with Jane McAlevey,” Truthout, March 28, 2018.

m. Harold Meyerson, “What Now for Unions?,American Prospect, March 26, 2018.

Section 2: Public Sector Unionization

a. Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, “Oregon Governor Signs Sweeping Union Rights Law Affecting Public Employers,” The National Law Review, July 1, 2019.

b. Johanna Brenner, “California Teachers on the March: An Interview with Joel Jordan,” Solidarity, April 4, 2019.

c.  Reid Wilson, “States race to prevent teacher strikes by boosting pay,” The Hill, January 19, 2019.

d. Heather Gies, “Disaster Averted: How Unions Have Dodged the Blow of Janus (So Far),” In These Times, January 12, 2019.

e. Ellen David Friedman, “What’s Behind the Teachers’ Strikes,” Dollars and Sense, May 16, 2018.

f. Lois, Weiner, “West Virginia Teachers Are Showing How Unions Can Win Power Even If They Lose Janus,” In These Times, February 24, 2018.

g. Jamie Partridge, “How Postal Workers removed the Staples,” The Bullet, E-Bulletin 1365, February 6, 2017.

Section 3: Anti-worker Threats and Actions 

a. Kris LaGrange, “Trump’s NLRB: Employers May Now File Decerts,” Portside, July 10, 2019.

b. Shaun Richman, “Rats Have Speech Rights, Too: Unions, Protests and Balloons,” New York Daily News, July 8, 2019.

c. Janine Jackson interview with Celine McNicholas, “It Puts You Into a Process That Hugely Favors the Employer,” FAIR, June 4, 2019.

d. Alison Griswold, “Uber Drivers Not Employees—NLRB,” Quartz, May 16, 2019.

e. Alison Griswold, “Uber Wins Big in NLRB SuperShuttle Decision,” Quartz, January 26, 2019.

f. Hamilton Nolan, “The Next Big Legal Case to Assassinate Unions,” Splinter News, December 6, 2018.

g. Stephen Hill, “A Rundown of All the Ways Trump Is Overseeing an All Out, Under-the-Radar Attack on Workers,” In These Times, August 19, 2018.

h. Heidi Shierholz and Celine McNicholas, “The Supreme Court is poised to make forced arbitration nearly inescapable,” EPI Working Economics Blog, May 7, 2018.

iEd Pilkington, “Revealed: Secret rightwing strategy to discredit teacher strikes,” Guardian, April 12, 2018.

A nationwide network of right-wing think-tanks is launching a PR counteroffensive against the teachers’ strikes that are sweeping the country, circulating a “messaging guide” for anti-union activists that portrays the walkouts as harmful to low-income parents and their children.

The new right-wing strategy to discredit the strikes that have erupted in protest against cuts in education funding and poor teacher pay is contained in a three-page document obtained by the Guardian. Titled “How to talk about teacher strikes”, it provides a “dos and don’ts” manual for how to smear the strikers.

j. Lawrence Wittner, “The Trump Administration’s War on Workers,” Portside, February 19, 2018.

k. Marni von Wilpert, “States with joint-employer shield laws are protecting wealthy corporate franchisers at the expense of franchisees and workers,” Economic Policy Institute Fact Sheet, February 13, 2018.

Section 4: The Union Difference

a. Mark Brenner and Lina Stepick, “The Union Advantage: How Oregon Unions Raise Wages, Improve Benefits, and Contribute to the State Economy,” University of Oregon, Labor Education and Research Center, February 2019.

Some key findings:

  • Oregon workers covered by a union contract earn 15.2% more, on average, than non-union workers.
  • Women working under a union contract earn an average of 23.4% more than women who don’t have a union.
  • The gap between average pay for men and women is 18.7% in non-union workplaces, but only 5.3% in unionized workplaces.
  • Average wages are 15.9% higher for workers of color covered by a union contract compared to workers of color in non-union workplaces.
  • The gap between white workers and workers of color is 26.1% in non-unionized workplaces, but 23.1% in unionized workplaces.
  • Controlling for factors such as education, industry, and location, Oregon workers with a union contract earn 11% more, on average, than workers without a union.
  • Having a union contract adds an average of $4,701 per year to each worker’s annual income. Overall, unions increased the earnings of Oregon workers by $1.4 billion dollars in 2017.

wage difference


b. Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz, “What labor market changes have generated inequality and wage suppression? Employer power is significant but largely constant, whereas workers’ power has been eroded by policy actions,” Economic Policy Institute, December 12, 2018.

c. Eric Levitz, “Unions Are Not a Special Interest Group,” New York Magazine, May 25, 2018.

union difference

d. Catherine Ordonez, “Janus Amicus Demonstrates That Unions Protect LGBT Workers,” Onlabor Blog, May 1, 2018.

Key points:

After establishing the prevalence of workplace discrimination against LGBT people, the brief transitions to discussing the power and practice of unions to protect LGBT workers from discrimination.

The brief presents a rich history of the ways that unions pioneered protections for LGBT workers, relying heavily on history detailed in Frank’s book Out In the Union. For example: In 1974, two American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local unions negotiated collective bargaining agreements that expressly prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1982, the staff union at the Village Voice in New York City “paved the way for modern domestic partner benefits” when it negotiated an extension of the company health plan to “spouse equivalents.” In the mid-1980s, the Columbia clerical local union collectively bargained for nondiscrimination protection for LGBT workers, spousal equivalent bereavement leave, health coverage, and tuition benefits for domestic partners. And that same decade, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union negotiated the addition of “change of sex” to the list of protected classes at an industrial laundry facility after a union steward was harassed at work following her gender reassignment surgery.

The brief highlights how unions prevent and remedy discrimination against LGBT workers through collective bargaining. To start, the brief asserts that collective bargaining allows the contractual creation and enforcement of workers’ rights that exist independent of any state or federal law. As a result, CBAs that include a ban on sexual orientation discrimination or gender identity discrimination provide independent protection from discrimination for all LGBT workers covered by these agreements. This protection is particularly important for workers in states that do not prohibit discrimination on those bases under state law. As evidence that unions pursue these contractual protections in CBAs, the brief provides that greater than 1,700 AFSCME union contracts include sexual orientation as part of a nondiscrimination clause, and many also include language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

Antidiscrimination provisions in CBAs, according to the brief, protect LGBT workers by measurably deterring discrimination—“research suggests that LGBT employees experience less discrimination when their employer has a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity”—and allowing workers to invoke union grievance procedures to address and resolve violations. The brief argues that these grievance procedures are good for aggrieved employees, taxpayers, and the judicial system, as they provide an efficient and cost-effective way to resolve employment disputes at no cost to the individual employee and without any court involvement.

e. Hannah Finnie, “Why Young People Are Joining Unions Again, For the first time in decades, union membership is on the rise among young people,” Talk Poverty, April 19, 2018.

f. Elise Gould and Celine McNicholas, “Unions help narrow the gender wage gap,” Economic Policy Institute, Working Economics Blog, April 3, 2017.

Main finding:

Unions have been proven to provide women with higher wages and better benefits. As shown in the figure below, working women in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men, compared to 78 cents on the dollar for non-union women as a share of non-union men’s dollar. Furthermore, hourly wages for women represented by unions are 23 percent higher than for nonunionized women. Unions provide a boost to women regardless of their race or ethnicity. The gender wage gap is significantly smaller among both white and black unionized workers than their non-union counterparts. Unionized workers are also more likely to have access to various kinds of paid leave, from paid sick days, vacations, and holidays to paid family and medical leave, enabling them to balance work and family obligations.

union difference

g. Cherrie Bucknor, “Black Workers, Unions, and Inequality,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, August 30, 2016.

Main finding:

This paper finds that Black union workers of today are very different from Black union workers of the past. In particular, Black union workers today are more likely to be female, older, have more years of formal education, be immigrants, and work in the public sector.

Black union workers also enjoy higher wages, and better access to health insurance and retirement benefits than their non-union peers. These benefits persist even after controlling for systematic differences between the union and non-union workforce. Specifically, Black union workers on average earn 16.4 percent higher wages than non-union Black workers. Black union workers are also 17.4 percentage points more likely than non-union Blacks to have employer-provided health insurance, and 18.3 percentage points more likely to have an employer-sponsored retirement plan.


h. Jake Rosenfeld, Patrick Denice, and Jennifer Laird, “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers, The overlooked reason why wages are stuck and inequality is growing,” Economic Policy Institute, Report, August 30, 2016.

Key findings:

For nonunion private-sector men, weekly wages would be an estimated 5 percent ($52) higher in 2013 if private-sector union density (the share of workers in similar industries and regions who are union members) remained at its 1979 level. For a year-round worker, this translates to an annual wage loss of $2,704. For the 40.2 million nonunion private-sector men the loss is equivalent to $2.1 billion fewer dollars in weekly paychecks, which represents an annual wage loss of $109

The effects of union decline on the wages of nonunion women are not as substantial because women were not as unionized as men were in 1979. Weekly wages would be approximately 2 to 3 percent higher if union density remained at its 1979 levels for all nonunion women; nonunion, non–college graduate women, and nonunion women with a high school diploma or less education. However the cumulate effects are still sizable. For 32.9 million full-time nonunion women working in the private sector, weekly pay would be a total of $461 million more (and roughly $24.0 billion more per year) in 2013 if unions had remained as strong as they were in 1979.

The degree of nonunion wage decline reflects how much unionization has declined since 1979 among private-sector men (by two-thirds, from 34 to 10 percent), among women (by more than one-half, from 16 to 6 percent), and especially among non–college degree men (by more than two-thirds, from 38 to 11 percent).


Section 5: Unionization and Inequality

a. Susan Dynarski, “Fresh Proof That Strong Unions Help Reduce Income Inequality,” New York Times, July 6, 2018.

Main finding:

New evidence shows that unions played a major role in reducing income inequality in the United States in the decades when organized labor was strong.

But it also demonstrates that the decline in union power since the 1960s — which may be exacerbated as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision— has contributed to the widening gap between rich and poor.

The new insights come from a working paper, “Unions and Inequality Over the Twentieth Century: New Evidence from Survey Data,” by four economists: Henry Farber, Daniel Herbst and Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton, and Suresh Naidu of Columbia. They establish that unions have constrained income inequality far beyond their own membership ranks.

While the scholars can’t pinpoint the precise mechanism at work, they speculate that unions have indirectly increased pay at firms nervous that their own employees might organize. Unions have also lobbied for higher minimum wages and pushed to hold down executive salaries. They have also advocated for broader access to health care, countering a key channel through which income inequality can harm all of society. . . .

The four economists painstakingly cleaned and coded hundreds of these surveys spanning nearly 90 years. The data encompass the growth of unions during the 1930s and ’40s, their heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, and their slow decline to the present.

Union workers now earn about 20 percent more than nonunion workers in similar jobs. Remarkably, this union premium has held steady since the 1930s.

Throughout this period, the biggest boost from union membership has gone to the least educated workers, who have, in turn, driven the rise and fall of union membership. The decades following World War II, when unskilled workers formed the union movement’s backbone, marked the most rapid decreases in income inequality. Wages for nonwhite workers were particularly strong then.

But increasing wages for low-skilled union members is just one channel through which unions can reduce income inequality. Unions can also affect the earnings of nonunion workers.

To capture such effects, the researchers broadened their lens to include the entire distribution of workers and their wages beyond those who are in typically unionized jobs and industries. They found that, going back to the 1930s, more unions meant more income equality. During years and in states where workers were more likely to be unionized, income inequality was lower.

b. Lawrence Mishel and Jessica Schieder, “As union membership has fallen, the top 10 percent have been getting a larger share of income,” Economic Policy Institute, Economic Snapshot, May 24, 2016.


Main finding:

The single largest factor suppressing wage growth for working people andsuppressing union membership over the last few decades has been the erosion of collective bargaining.

c. Oregon Center for Public Policy, “Stronger unions could reduce income inequality and strengthen Oregon’s economy,” Oregon Center For Public Policy, State of Working Oregon Series, April 29, 2016.

Inequality widens

d. Economic Policy Institute, “The benefits of collective bargaining, an antidote to wage decline and inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, Fact Sheet, April 14, 2015.

Union membership

e. Will Kimball and Lawrence Mishel, “Unions’ Decline and the Rise of the Top 10 Percent’s Share of Income,” Economic Policy Institute, Economic Snapshot, February 3, 2015.

Union membership and inequality

f. David Cooper and Lawrence Mishel, “The erosion of collective bargaining has widened the gap between productivity and pay,” Economic Policy Institute, Report, January 6, 2015.

compensation and collective bargaining

Section 6: The Right to Work Experience

a. Eric Dirnbach, “What’s the Likely Effect of the Janus Case? Let’s Look at the Numbers,” Portside, March 19, 2018.

b. Robin Urevich, “Judging Janus: The Money Machine Behind the Attacks on Labor,” Portside, November 20, 2017.

c. Bill Knight, “Iowa Workers Defy Attempt to Weaken Their Unions,” Pekin Times, November 14, 2017.

d. Desmoinesdem, “GOP Law Fails to Break Iowa’s Largest Public Sector Unions,” Bleeding Heartland, October 25, 2017.

e. Don McIntosh, “’Right to Work’ coming to the public sector,” Northwest Labor Press, May 16, 2017.

Main point:

In the 23 states that allow unions to charge fair share fees to represented non-members, the fees typically run about 85 percent of full union dues. And in those states, on average about 7 percent of represented workers pay fair share fees instead of full union dues.

The case that could overturn Abood is called Janus v AFSCME. The lead plaintiff is Mark Janus, an AFSCME-represented public employee in Illinois. The case was dismissed by the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals in March, but the Supreme Court could agree to hear an appeal when it begins its next session this October. . . .

That means public sector unions have between six to 13 months before paying anything at all to the union becomes strictly a voluntary decision. Many public sector unions are getting ready by appealing to their fair share fee payers one-by-one to become full members.

They could look to Jim Falvey for tips. Falvey is president of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 82, which represents Portland-area postal service letter carriers. U.S. Postal Service unions already operate in a “right-to-work” voluntary-dues environment. So do all other federal employee unions. Yet Branch 82 manages to get over 96 percent of union-represented workers to pay dues voluntarily. How? First, by insisting in contract negotiations that the employer give the union a chance to meet with new hires. During new employee orientation, Falvey gets time to deliver an energetic pitch about how important the union is to letter carriers. The few he fails convince are later set upon by their coworkers — who don’t want to see their union weakened by freeloaders. The union publishes the names of non-members so all members can see who’s not paying their share. Branch 82 even offers a bounty to a member who signs up a non-member.

“I don’t believe [right-to-work] is the death knell that everybody says it is,” Falvey says.

f. Steve Smith, “Rep. Steve King and the Racist Origins of So-Called Right to Work,” California Labor Federation, March 13, 2017.

g. Leah Fried, “Five Steps to Maintain Unity and Membership under Right to Work,” Labor Notes, February 1, 2017.

h. Ross Eisenbrey and Teresa Kroeger, “A tale of two states (and what it tells us about so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws),” Economic Policy Institute, blog, January 12, 2017.

Main findings:

In 2011 and 2012 two states, New Hampshire and Indiana, debated the same bill: so-called “right-to-work” legislation, pushed by corporate lobbyists and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), designed to weaken unions financially and pave the way for greater corporate dominance of state politics. New Hampshire’s governor vetoed the bill in 2011. Indiana, by contrast, enacted it in 2012. It is instructive to compare the two states. By almost any measure, the economy of New Hampshire is stronger and its citizens are better off, on average, than the citizens of Indiana.

Now, [2017] New Hampshire’s legislature is once again debating a right-to-work bill. The bill’s sponsors make claims it will improve New Hampshire’s business climate and bring new jobs to the state, but there is no truth to this. Job growth in Indiana since it passed right-to-work has been no better than in New Hampshire.



i. Molly Beck, “Union membership in Wisconsin tumbles below national average,” Wisconsin State Journal, January 29, 2016.

j. Jeffrey Keefe, “Eliminating fair share fees and making public employment “right-to-work” would increase the pay penalty for working in state and local government,” Economic Policy Institute, Report, October 13, 2015.

Main findings:

State and local government employees earn less than similar private-sector workers, even though their education level (the most important predictor of earnings) is higher; however, they receive better health benefits and pensions. Previous research has found a public-sector compensation “penalty” of 2 percent to 11 percent, with state employees at the higher end of the penalty spectrum. (The penalty is how much less they earn in wages and benefits than private-sector workers with the same education, experience, etc.). Studies alleging that public employees are overcompensated do not control for skill levels and education.

Public-sector unions raise wages of public employees compared with similar nonunion public employees, which helps to narrow the private-public wage gap in those unionized sectors. The current public-employee union wage boost of 5 percent to 8 percent (Keefe 2013) is rather modest and considerably less than the boost that private-sector unions provide. Thus public employee unions, on average, do not raise wages to meet the wages paid to similar private-sector employees.

However, public-employee unions in full collective-bargaining states that permit union security (i.e., agency shop clauses) do raise total compensation to competitive market standards set by the private sector. In other words, only public employees in states with full collective bargaining make as much as their private-sector peers. In partial collective bargaining states, right-to-work states, and states that prohibit collective bargaining, public employees earn lower wages and compensation than comparable private sector employees, and this low compensation may impede state and local governments from recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees for their many professional and public safety occupations.

If the Supreme Court renders agency shop clauses unenforceable for public employees, it will shrink union membership because more people will try to gain services without paying for them (the “free-rider” problem). In RTW states in between 2000 and 2014, free-riders represented 20.3 percent of public-employee bargaining units (i.e., the public-sector unions were certified to represent them but they had decided not to join their workplace’s union nor to pay dues), while public-sector union density (the share of public-sector workers in a union) was only 17.4 percent. In states permitting agency-shop agreements (i.e., non-RTW states) only 6.8 percent of the bargaining units were nonunion members (but in this case not free-riders but agency-fee-payers paying fees equivalent to about 85 percent of dues) and union density was 49.6 percent . This near threefold gap in union density between RTW and non-RTW states underscores the importance of agency fees to the functioning of public employee unions and their ability to provide representation to their members.

If the court renders agency-shop clauses unenforceable for public employees, it will reduce public-employee compensation by increasing the pay penalty for working in state and local government. Using American Community Survey data, this report finds that the public-sector pay penalty is 1 percent in non-RTW states and 10 percent in RTW states, a net RTW compensation penalty of 9 percentage points.

Section 7: Anti-union Arguments 

a. Elizabeth Hovde, “The union way – penalizing community-minded employers,” Oregonian, May 28, 2018.

b. Steve Buckstein and Kathryn Hickok, “My View: Time to stop forcing union membership,” Portland Tribune, August 24, 2017.

c. Oregonian Editorial Board, “Oregon ‘right to work’ initiative is suddenly very relevant: Editorial Agenda 2016,” The Oregonian, April 1, 2016.

Section 8: General References

a.  Josh Bivens, Lora Engdahl, Elise Gould, Teresa Kroeger, Celine McNicholas, Lawrence Mishel, Zane Mokhiber, Heidi Shierholz, Marni von Wilpert, Ben Zipperer, and Valerie Wilson, “How today’s unions help working people, Giving workers the power to improve their jobs and unrig the economy,” Report, Economic Policy Institute, August 24, 2017.

b. Jonathan Rosenblum, Beyond $15, Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement, Beacon Press, 2017.

c. Colin Gordon, The Union Difference: Labor Policy and American Inequality.

d. Why Unions Matter, Keep Oregon Working, June 2016,



e. The UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, Work, Money and Power: Unions in the 21st Century, third edition 2013.

f. Michael K. Honey (editor), All Labor Has Dignity (Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. on Labor Rights and Economic Justice), Beacon Press, 2012.

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