Report: Nonunion workers lose pay as labor unions lose clout

A new report says the steady decline of labor unions has affected nonunion workers, who have not seen wages rise as high as they would have if unions were at peak numbers. But an Arizona economist and business official said many other factors could be at play. (Photo by Thewmatt/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – The steady decline in union membership has had a ripple effect on wages of nonunion workers, costing them a potential $14 to $52 a week in pay, according to a report this week by a Washington think tank.

The Economic Policy Institute said women were on the low end of that range in potential wage losses since 1979 – since women had lower wages to begin with and have been catching up – while nonunion men were on the higher end.

“The core takeaway from the report is that union decline has cost nonunion workers billions of dollars in take-home pay over the past three-and-a-half decades,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a co-author, during a conference call on the report Tuesday. “Strong unions mean higher wages for union members and nonmembers alike.”

Rosenfeld said that message is often lost in right-to-work states where union opponents argue “time and time again, that unions only benefit the lucky few to have union card and, in fact, work to depress wages to nonunion workers.”

Arizona has long been a right-to-work state, which is reflected in the number of its workers who belong to labor unions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that membership for all unions, public and private, stood at 11.1 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2015. In Arizona, union membership was less than half the national average last year, the BLS reported, at 5.2 percent of all workers. That’s down from 8.8 percent as recently as 2008, the bureau said.

The BLS also reported that the median hourly wage nationally was $17.40 in 2015, while in Arizona it was $16.27.

Lee McPheters, a professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, agreed with the EPI report that “unions deliver, in the sense wages are going to be higher.” But he said there are also economic advantages to low numbers of union workers.

Workplaces with high turnover rates operate better without unionization, said McPheters, director of the JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center at the Carey School. Outside corporations also tend to move operations to states with low union presence because it’s cheaper, he said.

Tucson Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mike Varney said there are other forces driving lower wages in Arizona, pointing to globalization, outsourcing and the decline mining and agriculture jobs as the main factors.

“Companies have to do all they can to stay competitive,” Varney said of the shifting global economy.

But Ben Grossfeld, a spokesman for the Arizona AFL-CIO, said businesses in the state can count on help from the Legislature.

“Arizona’s Legislature for years has been remarkably against the union growth,” Grossfeld said. “Every possible step, labor unions have been locked.”

McPheters said the right-to-work culture in Arizona, part of state law since the 1940s, “becomes part of the state culture.”

BLS does not measure private-sector union membership. But the EPI report said that union membership in private-sector U.S. industries stands at about one worker in 20, down from a high of one in three in the 1950s, when union membership was at its peak.

The report looked at inflation-adjusted wages since 1979, which it called mostly a period of wage stagnation aggravated by the decline in unions that would otherwise pressure nonunion businesses to pay more.

The potential wage losses varied according to gender and education, the report said. Most-affected were nonunion working men with a high school education or less, who could be earning another $61 a week if union membership was at levels of previous decades, said the institute, which studies low- and moderate-income workers.