The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a bright light on extant structural inequality. Differences in labor market outcomes and economic security between unionized and non-unionized workers are no exception. It has become increasingly clear that non-unionized workers are less shielded from the economic impacts of the pandemic and that many of these workers are disproportionately Black and Hispanic.
Unions do a great deal to challenge economic inequality. Unions do this by increasing baseline wages among workers, stabilizing promotion decisions reducing their arbitrariness, and providing other resources like job training and skill development. Although unionization benefits all workers, its effects are particularly apparent among already marginalized groups.
Unions have helped close wage gaps, reducing between-group inequality. Indeed, as women, African Americans, and people with disabilities gained access to union jobs, it brought their wages closer to those of men, whites, and workers without disabilities. In other words, wage disparities between minority and majority group members are smaller for those who are in unionized jobs.
The ability to benefit from unions, however, requires access to unions — something that has been greatly declining. Additionally, people underrepresented in unionized jobs tend to be the most disadvantaged and least likely to benefit from the “moral economies” unions generate.
So, while African Americans, women and people with disabilities in unionized employment benefit considerably, members of these respective groups in non-unionized employment are left behind. This is in large part why unionism decreases inequality between majority and minority groups, but occurs at the expense of within-group inequality, that is, inequality among unionized and non-unionized workers within the same minority groups.
This is especially true for disability, as we find in our recent work. People with disabilities are by far among the most disadvantaged workers in the United States. As we have shown elsewhere, they experience abysmally low employment rates, stagnant and low wages and clustering into low paying sectors offering precarious jobs, such as food and retail – sectors with low union density.
Using data from one of the largest on-going labor market surveys in the United States, the Current Population Survey Merged Outgoing Rotation Groups (CPS-MORG), pooled over nine years (2009-2018), we find that when workers with disabilities are in unionized jobs, they see important increases in their earnings. Indeed, in comparison with gendered and racialized groups, people with disabilities experience the largest gains to unionization, in part because without unions, they earn some of the lowest earnings of any workers.
Unionized workers without disabilities earned, on average, 15% more per week than non-unionized workers, even after accounting for differences in education, age, and work hours. The benefits of unionization, however, were almost double for disabled workers. Unionized workers with disabilities earned 28% more than otherwise similar non-unionized workers.
Because union membership had stronger effects on weekly earnings for people with disabilities, earnings inequality was smaller among disabled union members. Unionization decreased between-group inequality and functioned to almost close the large disability wage gap.
To put this in perspective, non-unionized workers with disabilities earned approximately 13% less than other non-unionized workers without disabilities, but unionized workers with disabilities earned only 3% less than unionized workers without disabilities.
The overall greater effects of unionization mean larger gaps by union membership among workers with disabilities, making access to union jobs an important component of wage inequality. Yet, we also show that workers with disabilities too have been impacted by deunionization trends. Among workers with disabilities, unionization declined from 16% of workers in 2009 to only 12% in 2018 — a 25% decline over a period of less than a decade.
Our findings are a salient example of the seeming paradox scholars have increasingly pointed out — decreasing economic inequality between groups at the expense of increasing inequality within groups. We highlight one of the many mechanisms behind such trends — access to unions. By studying the varying effects of unionization on wages for minority groups, we show that unionization has decreased inequality between workers with and without disabilities but increased inequality within groups of people with disabilities.
The right to organize has been under attack for decades and the pandemic has made the negative effects of declining union protection on marginalized workers even more acute. In a context of de-unionization and the declining political influence of unions, it becomes increasingly more important to highlight that uneven access to unionized employment means that only some workers from marginalized groups are able to experience the important benefits of unionization.
David Pettinicchio and Michelle Maroto. “Combating Inequality: The Between-and Within-Group Effects of Unionization on Earnings for People with Different Disabilities.” The Sociological Quarterly 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the chapter, please click here.