New EPI report finds strong union states like Washington have more equitable economic, social structures
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Dec. 17, 2021) — A new report from the Economic Policy Institute documents the correlation between higher levels of unionization and a range of economic, personal, and democratic well-being measures. In the same way unions give workers a voice at work, with a direct impact on wages and working conditions, unions also give workers a voice in shaping their communities. Where workers have this power, states have more equitable economic structures, social structures, and democracies.
The 17 U.S. states with the highest union densities have state minimum wages that are on average 19% higher than the national average and 40% higher than those in low-union-density states. They also have median annual incomes $6,000 higher than the national average and have higher-than-average unemployment insurance recipiency rates, meaning a higher share of those who are unemployed actually receive unemployment insurance.
“Unions promote economic equality and build worker power, helping workers to win increases in pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions,” said Asha Banerjee, economic analyst at EPI and co-author of the report. “But the benefits of unions extend far beyond the workplace. The data suggest that unions also give workers a voice in shaping their communities and political representation.”
Washington state ranks #5 among the most unionized states in the country with union members accounting for 17.4 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the 2020 union membership report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
“The fact that union members earn more money means that they also boost our state economy and local communities,” said Larry Brown, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “But Washington’s unions also fight for improved working standards for everyone. Higher minimum wages, paid sick leave, paid family leave, access to overtime pay. All of these things were fought for and won by Washington’s labor movement, but they benefit all workers. That’s the power of joining together and collective action.”
The EPI report finds that states with the highest union densities have an uninsured (without health insurance) population 4.5 percentage points lower, on average, than that of low-union-density states. These states also all elected to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and are more likely to have passed paid sick and family and medical leave laws than states with lower union densities.
According to the report, the 17 highest-union-density states have passed significantly fewer restrictive voting laws than in the middle 17 states and the 17 lowest-union-density states (these totals include the District of Columbia). Over 70% of low-union-density states passed at least one voter suppression law between 2011 and 2019.
“Through long-standing advocacy and work to protect the right to vote, unions have linked voting rights to workers’ rights,” said Margaret Poydock, policy analyst and government affairs specialist at EPI and co-author of the report. “Unions play a key role in mobilizing workers to vote, helping to determine which political leaders are elected and what occupational backgrounds they come from.”
The authors explain that the relationship between high union density and higher household incomes, access to health care and paid leave, and fewer voting restrictions highlights the importance of protecting the right of workers to organize, including by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.
In this report, the authors categorize union density as the share of workers in a state who are members of a union or covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Union density data are averaged across states from 2015 to 2019 to give a more accurate estimate of state unionization rates and to avoid temporary single-year changes.