The Union Advantage in Your Pocketbook

Collective bargaining agreements. Union contracts helped protect more jobs, proportionally, against this modern-day plague. Just another reason to join the union.

We hate to sound like a broken record whose needle keeps skipping and playing the same tune over and over again, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual survey of union density and workers’ wages keeps playing the same tune: If you want higher pay, join a union.

But last year’s data introduced a new tune, too: If you wanted to lessen your chances of being arbitrarily fired during the coronavirus pandemic, make sure you’re unionized.

So in turns out that in 2020, you not only had more dollars in your pocket every week because of your union card, but you were more likely to have your job, too, virus or no virus.

First, the pay data:

The median weekly wage for all workers in the U.S. rose from $917 in 2019 to $984 in 2020, compared to the year before, the BLS survey of 60,000 households reported. That 7.3% increase is higher than figures in other BLS reports, but for the purposes of this column, the union report’s numbers govern.

The median weekly wage for all union workers rose from $1,095 to $1,144 (4.5%). It was the first time in years, if not decades, that the union increase was smaller than the non-union one. Non-unionists saw median weekly wages rise from $892 to $958 (7.4%).

So you should quit the union, right? Wrong. Subtract $958 from $1,144 and you get a $186 median weekly difference. The median is the mid-point where half the workers are above and half are below. And the unionists enjoyed a 19.4% advantage. Read that again: +19.4%.

Wait, there’s more.

Whites, and specifically white men, are the standard by which all other workers—women, men and women of color, you name it—are measured. Reflecting their historic domination, and systemic racism, too, white men have the highest median wages.

They still do, so let’s compare the others’ pay to theirs. Again, the union edge appears.

The median weekly pay for all white male workers in 2020 was $1,003, $38 (3.9%) more than it was the year before. That’s the base we’ll use.

Below we list the median pay for various subgroups in 2020, the median weekly pay hikes they got in the last year, and sometimes in percentage terms how much their median pay was above or below that of the white male “base”:

White union men’s median weekly pay in 2020: $1,243, up $62 (5.2%) in one year, and 23.9% above that base for all white male workers. It’s $6 more per hour. How’d you like a raise like that? Non-union white men got a raise, too, but they’re still $265 a week behind.

White union women’s median in 2020: $1,085, up $41. Not much, right? Well, the white union women had median pay that was $82 higher weekly than the white male base—union and non-union combined—we’re using. They’re 8% ahead. Call it a pro-union pay gap.

As a matter of fact, the only group whom white union women trailed in median weekly pay were white union men. And while other studies show working women earn 80 cents or so for every dollar a man earns in an identical job, the union woman earns 87.3 cents for every dollar a man earns. The pay gap’s still there, but it’s smaller when you’re unionized. Median pay for non-union white women: $877. The non-union women’s gap with white men: Yawning.

The same pattern shows up for workers of color. Black men had median pay of $794 weekly last year. Black union men earned $965, $199 weekly more than non-union Black men.

Black union women earned $917, $175 more in weekly median pay than non-union women.

For Hispanic-named workers, same story, different numbers. Median weekly pay for all Hispanic workers last year: $758. Remember, the median means half the workers are above that figure and half are below it.

Median weekly pay for unionized Hispanic workers last year: $1,016. To put that in perspective, that’s $13 a week ahead of the median for all white male workers in 2020. Hispanic male union workers took home a median of $1,076. That’s $306 a week above Hispanic non-union men. Hispanic union women had a $955 weekly median.

Dead last among subgroups: Hispanic non-union women. Their median weekly pay last year was $684. That’s 68% of our white male base. In other words, for every $3 a white male worker—union and non-union combined—earned, an Hispanic non-union woman earned $2.

By now, your eyes must be glazing over with all these numbers, but they make one basic point: There’s a big union edge, regardless of race, creed or color, when it comes to pay.

And here’s the other: In that same BLS survey, the number of union workers declined slightly, but the percentage of union workers—density—rose 0.5%, to 10.8%. Bluntly, BLS said, more non-union workers were laid off when the pandemic hit than union workers. That’s to be expected. There are more non-unionists than unionists in the U.S. workforce.

But the workforce shrank and proportionally more non-unionists got canned, too. In other words, union contracts not only gave workers higher pay in 2020, but better job protection. That’s not to say unionists escaped the ravages of the virus and the ensuing depression. It’s hard to escape double-digit unemployment. But there were fewer, proportionally, unionists who got clobbered than non-unionists.