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The Million-Dollar Union Difference

Photo by: Javeon Butler/AFSCME
By Pete Levine ·

If you belong to a union, give yourself a pat on the back.

A new study finds that union members may earn as much as $1.3 million more than nonunion workers over their lifetime.

According to a new paper published in Cornell University’s ILR Review that examined career earnings of workers from 1969 to 2019, “unionization throughout one’s career is associated with a $1.3 million mean increase in lifetime earnings, larger than the average gains from completing college.”

That staggering difference, the study’s authors noted, was seen despite those workers retiring at an earlier-than-average retirement age.

We know that unionized workers earn a higher hourly wage that nonunion workers – nearly 20% more for union workers than nonunion workers, for example – but the study suggests that those differences don’t tell the whole story.

The authors note that looking at what they call point-in-time estimates “potentially misses organized labor’s contribution to broader inequality and social mobility outcomes.”

While this particular study examined earnings of men across their careers, we know that for women and people of color, belonging to a union also makes a huge difference.

Women who belong to a union earn 23.8% more than women workers who don’t belong to unions. For Black workers, that difference rises to 25% compared to nonunionized Black workers. For Hispanic, it rises even higher, to 39.2%.

People are rediscovering the union difference now more than at any time in the past six decades.

According to the latest annual Gallup poll on union favorability, 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest rate in nearly 60 years.

As approval of labor unions rises, workers are springing into action. The period from October 2021 through June of this year saw a nearly 60% increase in petitions filed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by workers seeking to unionize.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans understands what unions bring to the table: higher wages, safer working conditions, lifesaving benefits, job security, and dignity and respect,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders.

So, if a voice on the job and a seat at the table aren’t reasons enough to join a union, maybe $1 million is.

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