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Do Union Members Really Earn More?

A favorite talking point of union officials is that employees need a union in order to make more money. But a little bit of digging shows that just isn’t true. 

As the number of American workers who belong to unions continues to drop, union officials have blamed labor laws they say make it too difficult for them to win elections and big-bad corporate bigwigs who fight back against unionization. But, according to a recent post by Labor Relations Ink’s Phillip Wilson, last year unions won about three-quarters of elections to unionize, one of highest rates on record.  Still, even with all these election wins, union membership is now at a record low, demonstrating that there are fewer workers trying to form unions.

If unions help workers earn more money, why wouldn’t employees rush to sign up? Maybe it’s because many workers have realized that unions don’t always deliver on what they promise, and the cost of joining a union is more than the benefits received.

Union officials like to cite Bureau of Labor Statistics data that show union members earn about $200 a week more than non-unionized workers. But those are blunt statistics that don’t really tell the full story.

When you dig into the numbers and compare workers across industries, unionized workers often come out behind their non-union counterparts. And when you factor in the cost of belonging to a union—often more than $1,000 a year—plus cost-of-living factors, unionized workers fall even further behind.

For example, as Wilson shows, census data shows non-union retail workers earn $1.97 more per hour than unionized retail workers, and that’s even before factoring in the cost of union membership and cost-of-living.

The same is true for unionized public sector workers, who often live in more expensive blue states like New York and California. When cost-of-living is factored in, the pay bump over non-union workers all but disappears.

While many people still express support of unions in an abstract way, in reality most don’t want the cost and stress unions bring to a workplace. Perhaps instead of blaming labor law and corporate boogeymen, union officials need to look at what they offer workers in today’s economy.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.