Co-authored with Sarah Thomason
Monica Ruiz grew up the daughter of immigrant farmworkers in the Central Valley. Despite their hard work under grueling conditions, her parents struggled to make ends meet with the low wages they were paid. Monica joined her parents in the fields as a teenager and could have continued on a similar path. Instead, she found a union job in the Stockton public schools that paid a living wage and provided good benefits like health insurance and a pension.
Monica’s story holds true for thousands of other families across California for whom a union job has been the main path to the middle class. These stories demonstrate just how important unions have been for increasing economic mobility.
They also give us a glimpse of what we stand to lose if unions are weakened as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Here are some of things my colleagues and I at the UC Berkeley Labor Center recently recently documented about unions through our report series, Union Effect in California:
Union workers earn 13 percent more when under a union contract than nonunion workers in similar industries with similar age and education. That translates to about $5,800 more in annual earnings for an individual worker, for a total of $18.5 billion across all union workers in California and $3.6 billion in the Bay Area. That is a significant boost not only for union families, but also for the local economies where they spend those additional dollars.
Union workers have better access to health insurance and retirement benefits at work with a union. Through collective bargaining agreements in California, 670,000 more workers have health insurance through their employer and 830,000 are offered a pension or retirement plan.
Union coverage increases race and gender equity in the workplace, although it does not eliminate gaps in wages, for example the gap between what a male and a female worker are paid for the same work. While all workers earn more and have better benefits under a union contract, women, workers of color and immigrants gain the most. African American workers earn 19 percent more, and Latino workers earn 40 percent, compared to 9 percent more for white workers.
Unions can reduce discrimination. Collective bargaining agreements often standardize wage rates across similar occupations doing similar tasks, and establish objective procedures for hiring and awarding raises and promotions. Union contracts narrow the wage gap between workers with different skills.
Union apprenticeship programs increase skill levels and open opportunities for workers without college degrees. Together, these measures reduce both wage differences for workers in the same occupation and occupational segregation within the workplace.
Union engagement in public policy has led to an even larger impact on working families — union and nonunion alike. In recent years California has passed a wide range of public policy measures that were initiated or backed by the state’s unions. In 2016, California passed a $15 minimum wage, which, when fully implemented in 2023, will improve incomes for 6.4 million low-wage workers.
Before 2014, nearly 40 percent of workers in the state had no access to paid sick leave at their job. Most are now guaranteed three paid sick days a year as a result of the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act. Other union-backed policies address workplace safety, protect against wage theft, and address sexual harassment on the job.
Unions’ engagement in policy is not limited to workplace protections. Other labor-backed efforts ensured continued school funding during the 2008-09 recession, protected patients from receiving surprise out-of-network medical bills, and created greater transparency in prescription drug pricing in the state.
The same organizations that brought Janus vs. AFSCME to the Supreme Court have worked for years to weaken private and public sector unions alike. Maintaining strong unions isn’t just an issue for union members — it affects all of us.
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 2018