The Decline in Unions Has Hurt All Working Women

Mid adult, African American woman (30s) working in manufacturing facility.
Pay for private-sector workers has barely budged in real terms over the past three and a half decades, and for some groups of people, real wages have fallen. During this time period, union membership has also dramatically dropped. While in the 1950s, 1 in 3 private-sector workers belonged to a union, now only 1 in 20 private-sector workers are unionized.
We know there are huge benefits to being unionized: union membership has long been associated with higher pay, better benefits, and stronger worker protections. For women, union membership also helps close the wage gap. The overall wage gap for union members is less than half the wage gap for nonunion members, and for Latina women the benefits are particularly striking – with workers making 44 percent more than their nonunion counterparts.
A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute has found that there’s another benefit of strong unions that is not quite as obvious: When unions are strong in an industry and region, wages for nonunion workers are better too. This means that the drop in private-sector union membership from 1979 to today has played a role in wage losses for nonunion workers.
Although women had lower rates of union membership in the 1970s, nonunion women’s wages were still hit when union membership dropped—their weekly wages would be 2 to 3 percent higher if union membership had remained at its 1979 levels. For the 32.9 million full-time nonunion women working in the private sector, this would have translated to $461 more in weekly wages in 2013 if union density had stayed the same.
The women most affected by the decline in unions had a high school diploma or less. These women, many of whom work in low-wage jobs, have watched their real wages drop to even lower than what they were in the late 1970s.
As women continue to face a wage gap that only closed by a penny last month, supporting the right of workers to unionize should be considered another tool to raise wages for women, especially women in low-wage jobs and women of color.