A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Union report shows challenges, but good news, too

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., June 6, 7 or 8

Labor unions still play a key role in Illinois’ communities and economy, according to a new study released last month, and that’s despite a drop of about 84,000 union members over the last decade.

Since 2006, Illinois’ union membership rate has declined by 1.2 percent, from 16.4 percent to 15.2 percent, the reports shows. As a result, there are almost 100 fewer unions and similar worker organizations here than 10 years ago. Despite long-term downward trends, both the unionization rate and total union membership have improved from their 2012 lows, so there’s good news for Illinois’ labor movement. From 2012 to 2015, for example, the state’s unionization rate increased from 14.6 percent to 15.2 percent and total union membership increased by about 47,000 workers.

The report also verifies what most union workers realize – that unions increase worker wages, and that “premium” is 10.52 percent higher pay on average in Illinois.

“Labor unions increase individual incomes by lifting hourly,” the reports states. “The state’s union wage effect is the 17th-highest in the nation.”

“Labor unions lift hourly wages, especially for low-income workers,” said Frank Manzo IV, Policy Director of the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a co-author of the study. “The economic data shows that unions help to reduce income inequality and foster a strong middle class in Illinois.”

The study, “The State of the Unions 2016: A Profile of Unionization in Chicago, in Illinois and in America,” was conducted by researchers at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, the University of Illinois Project for Middle Class Renewal, and Occidental College. Besides Manzo, the lead authors were Dr. Robert Bruno, a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Director of the School’s Labor Education Program, and Dr. Virginia Parks, a Professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

A few highlights:
* For every $1 paid in union membership dues and fees, an estimated $6.12 in after-tax income is returned to Illinois union members.
* There are approximately 84,000 fewer union members in Illinois today than there were in 2006.
* There are 891 labor unions and similar organizations in Illinois, a decline of almost 100 such groups in the last 10 years.
* The unionization rate has improved from a 2012 low of 14.6 percent to 15.2 percent in 2015.
* Union membership also improved, increasing from 800,000 in 2012 to about 847,000 in 2015.
* Looking at a few demographics, from 2014 to 2015, unionization rates increased for female workers, Latino and Latina workers, workers between the ages of 55 and 64, private-sector workers, and the overall educational and health-services industries.
* Unions once more are shown to increase the likelihood that an Illinois worker has health insurance (by 14 percent). These benefits translate into 43,000 additional jobs that are independently created by the higher earnings and increased consumer spending of union households.
* More than half of all public-sector workers are unionized in Illinois, compared to slightly more than one-third nationwide.

While more than half of all public-sector workers in Illinois are unionized, only 1 of 10 private-sector workers is a union member. African-American workers, individuals with Master’s degrees, and military veterans are among the most-unionized socioeconomic groups in Illinois. (Therefore, weakening the labor movement in Illinois would mostly hurt veterans, African Americans, and workers with Master’s degrees, such as teachers.)

“Unions play a vital role in Illinois’ economy and communities,” Manzo says. “The Illinois labor movement, however, will continue to face both short- and long-term challenges.”

There may also be good news in popular sentiment that’s grown despite constant criticism from corporations and elected officials who advocate management perspective.

“Americans' approval of labor unions has jumped five percentage points to 58 percent over the past year, and is now at its highest point since 2008, when 59 percent approved,” said Lydia Saad of Gallup. Also, “the percentage of Americans saying they would like labor unions to have more influence in the country has also been rising, and now stands at 37 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009.”

So the study gives the background, and such polls give the context. What’s needed is a renewed determination to persevere and work collectively for workers, for communities, and for Illinois.

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