Unions, Immigrant Labor, And Upward Mobility

According to recent data from CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy research) immigrant workers are now over 15 percent of the workforce and almost 13 percent of unionized workers. Even after controlling for systematic differences between union and non-union workers, union representation substantially improves the pay and benefits received by immigrants.

In 2003-2009 the average unionized immigrant worker earned $18.61 an hour while the workers in the labor market without union representation only earned $12.34 an hour. Also union immigrant workers are more likely (73.4 percent union, 43.6 percent non-union) to have health insurance benefits and more likely to have a retirement plan (61 percent and 28.7 percent), according to John Schmitt at CEPR.

Mexico is by far the largest contributor of emigrant labor, with almost 32 percent, then the Philippines (4.9 percent), India with 4.9 percent also, then China at 4.2 percent and El Salvador with 3.5 percent for the top five.

Of the 20 million immigrant workers in 2009, about 2.1 million were unionized. Over the full 2003-2009 period, about 10.9 percent of immigrant workers were unionized compared to the meager 13 percent of all our employees that are represented by collective bargaining today.

Union participation is particularly beneficial for immigrant workers in low-wage occupations. Unionization raises wages by 20 percent on average in 15 of the most typical of these low-wage jobs. This same group of workers with unionization also have a 31.4 percentage-point increased likelihood of having health insurance. And a 29.2 percentage-point jump in likelihood of retirement coverage. That’s almost double the 26 percent of non-union, low-wage with health insurance. And collective bargaining triples the number with retirement plans from 13 percent non-union to 42 percent  unionized.

The AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Research looked at the same data but between low density and high density participation states and found that there is a 28% disparity in wages compared to CEPR looking at union and non-union participation in the same state.

This report indicates that the immigration issue may be as much labor policy as border policy. The current economic crisis is not the result of some unknown, unmanageable or mysterious market forces; but decades of dead end policies championed by the Chamber of Commerce that unleashed the worst regressive tendencies of unregulated free-enterprise on earnings of an unprotected non-unionized labor market.

On average unions raise the immigrant workers wages by 17 percent or about $2 an hour, significantly increasing the funds available to expand the base of our economy and making economic mobility up to the middle class from the working poor more realistic.

According to ARAW .pdf (American Rights at Work): “More than half of the decline in the average wage of workers with no more than a high school education is attributed to the decline in union density. As collective bargaining declines, the distribution of income widens – but unions help reduce income inequality and provide clear economic benefits.”

These findings taken together demonstrate that immigration workers who are able to bargain collectively earn more and are more likely to have benefits associated with good jobs. By extension, the data also strongly suggest that better protection of workers’ right to unionize would have a substantial positive impact on the pay and benefits of immigrant workers and on our Main Street economy.

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