New Orleans As great as it is to finally see some increasing attention being paid to the issues of inequality that have been so many decades in the making, perhaps not enough attention is being paid to the critical role of unions in bridging the inequality gap, especially when it comes to the critical issues of racial inequality. At least that is the important message being carried by Professor Jake Rosenfeld from the University of Washington as I heard him address the subject in a recent talk at Loyola University on “What Unions No Longer Do and What it Means for Racial Inequality,” which is also the subject of a forthcoming book he has written.
Rosenfeld has gone deeply into the Census Bureau numbers since they began recording information on union membership and found some very important statistical evidence on the value of union membership in achieving racial equality in the 1970’s when union density was still relatively robust. In that period the difference in pay between whites and African-Americans was actually very small, partially because African-American women were two times as likely to be union members as white women and African-American men were 50% more likely to be union members as white men. Couple the higher African-American membership rates with the well documented wage premiums that come with union membership, and, as Professor Rosenfeld argues, it’s hard to deny the critical contribution that union membership was making to racial wage equality.
From 1973, when the figures became available, to 2009, the union “premium” was over 22% for black women and 30% for black men over non-unionized workers. White women had a greater wage premium than black women, and white men had a lower wage premium than black men, even though both were paid more than nonunion workers. Over the entire period though private sector union membership fell precipitously from over 30% to less than 10%. In a painful quote Rosenfeld shared from the Princeton political scientist, Paul Frymer, equality was achieved before the fall through “diversification of an increasingly marginal institution.” And, yes, the “marginal institution” Frymer is talking about is the American labor movement. The demise of organized labor allowed corporations to decouple pay and productivity, so though wild increases in productivity of workers have been experienced in the last 30 years, pay has virtually stagnated, exacerbating inequities.
Don’t hold your breath looking for extensive proposals to increase the strength of labor unions though, no matter how much rhetoric is now fueling the debate on inequality. Nonetheless the facts are the facts, and a weaker labor movement winning fair wages and justice on the job means the achievement of equality in the United States will be harder and harder to realize.