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Fewer and fewer Americans belong to a union. Membership is down to a historic low of 11.2 percent of the work force, and only 6.7 percent of workers in the private sector.
And if the nation’s confidence in the institution is any measure, not many people are mourning its diminishment. According to a Gallup poll, organized labor inspires less confidence than banks.
But a recent study may give some workers reason to reconsider. For those who belong to a union, membership seems to bring a benefit that perhaps surpasses better wages or generous health insurance: higher life satisfaction.
The study authors, Patrick Flavin, an assistant professor at Baylor University, and Gregory Shufeldt, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, used data from five different years between the early 1980s and mid-2000s, conducted in the United States, of the World Values Survey, a research project focusing on people’s beliefs. As they write in the report, they found that “union members are more satisfied with their lives than those who are not members and that the substantive effect of union membership on life satisfaction is large and rivals other common predictors of quality of life.”
Today, many say unions have more problems than a lack of members. “What Unions No Longer Do,” by Jake Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington, lays out other aspects of their decline. Justin Fox at the Harvard Business Review offers a summary: Unions do not equalize incomes; counteract racial inequality; play a big role in assimilating immigrants; or give lower-income Americans a political voice.
Yet as Mr. Flavin and Mr. Shufeldt told Op-Talk in an email: “Labor union membership still has benefits, and that this is true for all union members. Simply put, if one goal of labor unions is to boost the quality of life for their members, our study provides empirical evidence that they are succeeding.”
In their study, they tease out four “pathways” by which being a union member might improve quality of life compared with not being a member: “These include having greater satisfaction with one’s experiences while working, feeling greater job security, being afforded numerous opportunities for social interaction and integration, and enhancing the participatory benefits associated with more engaged democratic citizenship.”
Mr. Flavin and Mr. Shufeldt acknowledged in their email that despite these qualities, public confidence in organized labor is low — and, they note, “has been relatively constant for the past 20 years or so.”
“As Americans, we now are less likely to live in a union household or know someone that belongs to a union than in the past,” they say. “Most of the widely known achievements of the American labor movement occurred nearly 100 years ago. We take many of these gains for granted, such as the 40 hour workweek, child protection laws, the right to collectively bargain, etc.”
In their study, they note that union membership appears to have an effect independent of factors like income. “We statistically control for a series of demographic factors to isolate the relationship between union membership and subjective well-being and ensure that union members aren’t happier simply because they have higher incomes, etc.,” Mr. Flavin and Mr. Shufeldt told Op-Talk. “When we account for that series of possible confounding factors” — these include income, education, gender, age, marital status, self-reported health, employment status and church attendance — “we find that labor union members are more satisfied with their lives than non-members.”
The effect, moreover, is powerful. The study notes that union membership offers a bigger boost in satisfaction than an increase in income, for example (but, to be sure, less than getting married).
“We believe the substantive effect of being a union member on subjective well-being is important and relatively large when compared to other typical predictors,” the authors told Op-Talk.
Yet some suggest, like Daniel DiSalvo at The Daily Beast, that “public employee unions drive up government costs and depress productivity, weakening the state’s capacity to assist the poor and middle class.”
Mr. Flavin and Mr. Shufeldt disagree with this view. They told Op-Talk, “Based on previous research with other colleagues, we’ve found that states/countries with higher union membership levels also have higher levels of subjective well-being. In addition, states/countries with more active labor unions tend to have a stronger social safety net (welfare generosity, unemployment insurance, etc.), which previous research links to higher levels of subjective well-being among citizens.”
Nevertheless, in recent decades, unions have faced determined, even existential opposition to their very existence, as the authors note in the study: “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), only 11.3 percent of all wage and salary workers are members of a labor union, which reflects a decline of almost 10 percent of the American working population in the last 30 years,” they write. “Moreover, as evidenced by the quick demise of the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress and more recent high profile battles over collective bargaining rights and employee benefits in several states, even the ability to organize and join a labor union has become a politically contentious issue.”
Still, Mr. Flavin and Mr. Shufeldt told Op-Talk, “Policy decisions, unfortunately, are rarely made based on how it might affect subject well-being.” But, they add, in this study and in previous research, “we have found a clear positive relationship between more generous social welfare policies, size of government, union membership, and citizens’ subjective well-being. So we believe labor unions still have an important role to play in promoting quality of life among citizens.”
Finally, they told Op-Talk: “If our paper could give any advice to labor unions, it is hopefully that we can give new meaning to the adage, ‘don’t mourn, organize.’”