Center for American Progress

How Unions Are Crucial for Building Working-Class Economic Power

How Unions Are Crucial for Building Working-Class Economic Power

Union membership allows workers without four-year college degrees to earn more and achieve financial security for their families and children.

Photo shows two construction workers in bright clothing behind three orange cones at a metro station with glass ceilings
Workers take a look at a metro station under construction in Alexandria, Virginia, April 2023. (Getty/Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Union workers benefit from collective bargaining in all sorts of way—higher wages, better benefits, increased job stability, safer workplaces, and more—and these effects are especially prominent for the working class. While researchers often neglect to draw conclusions on the benefits of union membership for the working class—defined as those without a four-year college degree—a body of existing research points the way forward for researchers and policymakers alike. These findings show that union membership offers a range of economic benefits for members of the working class, including:

  • Increased wages for members that spill over to nonunion workers
  • Improved access to benefits, particularly for women and Black workers
  • Higher predicted returns to male workers’ earnings over the course of their lifetimes than a four-year college degree
  • Increased wealth and narrowed racial wealth gaps
  • Increased intergenerational mobility for the children of union parents

This article synthesizes research that shows how unions build a stronger working class. Policymakers must not overlook this group: Not only are a majority of America’s workers members of the working class, but also the working class is growing more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, meaning policies that increase the economic security of working families also advance racial economic justice. With research showing that forming a union is a needlessly daunting task, particularly for workers with fewer years of education, policies that make it easier for workers to exercise their right to collective bargaining will go a long way. Unions are key to the success of any policy intended to create and improve jobs for the working class, and Congress must take steps to make joining a union easier through measures such as passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act.

What is the Protecting the Right to Organize Act?

The PRO Act, which the House of Representatives passed in 2021 and reintroduced in 2023, would implement a range of crucial reforms that safeguard workers’ right to join a union, including:

  • Authorizing the National Labor Relations Board to assess monetary penalties when workers are illegally fired
  • Closing loopholes that corporations abuse to prevent their workers from organizing unions
  • Streamlining the process for achieving a first contract after workers vote for a union

Research shows that the working class wins big through unions

Perhaps the most well-known effect of union membership is higher wages, and increased union density would lead to higher wages for all workers, not just union members, in the working class. In Figure 1, 1980­­–2013 data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute illustrate how much more per week the typical member of the working class would earn if union density had remained at its 1979 levels. Since 1979, when 38 percent of private sector working-class men and 16 percent of working-class women were union members, union density as of 2022 has fallen to just 10.1 percent overall, or 10.6 percent for men and only 9.9 percent for women; this decline is driven in no small part by the weakening of labor laws that are crucial for protecting members of the working class who want to form unions. Had this decline not come to pass, in 2013, the typical working-class worker would earn 8 percent more per week, or $3,016 every year.

Better benefits and higher wages, particularly for women and Black workers

Union members of the working class—especially women—earn more not only in wages but also in benefits compared with nonunion workers. In fact, as Figure 2 shows, research from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2013 found that union women without a high school diploma or equivalent are twice as likely to have health insurance coverage and nearly twice as likely to have a retirement plan as their nonunion counterparts. Women with a high school diploma or some college are nearly 40 percent more likely to have health insurance through their employer and more than 50 percent more likely to have a retirement plan. Working-class women are far more likely than men to work in services and other sectors where these crucial benefits are less common, meaning union membership offers substantial benefits for workers facing economic insecurity.

Black union members of the working class also enjoy a large wage boost and better benefits. Figure 3 shows that Black members of the working class who are union members earn nearly 20 percent more than Black nonunion workers and are far more likely to have health insurance coverage and a retirement plan. This effect is again more substantial for workers without a high school diploma. These gains are significant, as Black workers make up 13 percent of the working-class labor force and are disproportionately more likely to be members of the working class compared with the workforce with four-year college degrees.

The financial gains of unionization add up over a lifetime

Together, increases in income from union membership—both directly through higher wages and indirectly through better benefits and more on-the-job opportunities for wage growth—add up over a worker’s lifetime, possibly even exceeding the returns of a four-year college degree for a male member of the working class. Figure 4 shows how these earnings stacked up for male workers as more of these workers’ careers from 1969 to 2019 were spent as part of a union; the predicted additional earnings from even just a 25 percent unionized career nearly closed the gap between the working class and college educated, according to a 2022 study, and more than 50 percent of a career spent in a union was associated with a 12 percent increase in predicted lifetime earnings compared with the returns to a college degree.

Wealth accumulation

These factors combined mean that the increase in wages, benefits, job stability, and more lead to more wealth for union working-class families—and even greater gains for working families of color. Recent research from the Center for American Progress found that the median wealth of a union working-class household is four times as large as the median wealth for a nonunion working-class household. (see Figure 5) These gains also help narrow racial and ethnic wealth gaps: While white households have the largest dollar gains from union membership, Black, Hispanic, and other or multiple-race or -ethnicity families enjoy significantly larger percentage increases.

Intergenerational gains

Gains from union membership are intergenerational: The children of working-class union parents have much higher earnings than those with nonunion working-class parents, with research finding an increase in mean annual labor income of $6,300, or 16 percent. As a result, unions not only are crucial for improving the economic well-being of the working class today, but also will lead to stronger working-class wages for generations to come.


Unions do great things for the working class: improving wages, covering expensive health care, increasing savings for a comfortable retirement, building wealth, and helping workers pass down their hard-earned union gains to their children. Policymakers who care about the working class must take action on measures for improving the working class’s ability to unionize. They have a number of options that could ease the process of forming a union—such as passing the PRO Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act—and cracking down on union busting among corporations that benefit from depressing the wages of their working-class employees. The Biden administration has made strides in its efforts to prioritize union job creation, especially in its industrial policy, but more must be done to build power for working families.

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Aurelia Glass

Policy Analyst, Inclusive Economy

David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project


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