Home arrow Issues arrow Unions Making a Difference
Unions Making a Difference
Unions are an essential part of a strong democracy and play a crucial role in America’s public and community life. Not only do they give workers a voice on the job and help negotiate fair benefits and wages for their members, but they also use their political and economic resources to raise the floor for everyone who works for a living.

Unions, by fighting for higher standards for workers, businesses, families, the environment, and public health and safety, have helped to build the middle class and make sure the economy works for everyone.

  • Everyone
  • Business
  • Families
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Equality
  1. Unions Making a Difference for Everyone

    Unions benefit all of America’s workers and strengthen our communities. Unions today:

    Reinforce the middle class and lift up America’s communities. States with higher rates of unionization have lower rates of poverty, crime, and failing schools.1

    Benefit local economic development. In partnerships with employers, community organizations, and local governments, unions have helped revitalize local economies by saving and expanding family-supporting jobs.

    Raise wages for all workers. Studies show that a large union presence in an industry or region can raise wages even for non-union workers.2

    Fight for all workers’ health and safety. In 2008 the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers sued to get employers to provide personal protective equipment. Now, workers in hazardous jobs which require safety gear—like hard hats or protective glasses—must be provided this equipment, instead of being asked to buy it themselves.

    Advocate for increases in the minimum wage and push for living wage ordinances. Unions have been instrumental in efforts to increase the federal minimum wage, state minimum wages and in the successful living wage movement which has already resulted in over 150 local living wage laws nationwide.

    Reduce wage inequality. Unions raise wages the most for low- and middle-wage workers and workers without college degrees.3

    Invest worker pension funds to rebuild communities  In June 2006, the AFL-CIO launched the Gulf Coast Revitalization Program, a $1 billion housing and economic development program to create low- and moderate-income housing, a low-cost mortgage program, health facilities, job training services, and thousands of high-wage union jobs throughout the region. The Gulf Coast program builds on the success of similar AFL-CIO investment strategies to develop affordable housing in Chicago and to help New York City recover from the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11th. Union pension funds invested $750 million in post-9/11 New York.4

    Are crucial in passing legislation benefiting all workers, including:

    • Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, providing an increase in the federal minimum wage.
    • The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, a comprehensive federal law ensuring safety in the workplace.
    • Workers’ compensation laws, giving workers injured on the job medical coverage and compensation for lost time.
    • Mine safety laws strengthening mine safety standards and protecting the rights of mine workers.
    • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, creating the 40-hour work week and the first minimum wage.
    • The Social Security Act of 1935, providing benefits to unemployed and retired workers. 

    Union members:

    Earn higher wages. Union members earn 30% more than non-union workers.

    Have more training. Union workers are more likely to have access to formal, on-the-job training, making employees more skilled and adding to productivity.5

    Have safer workplaces. Union workers are often better trained on health and safety rules and union workplaces are more likely to enforce Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.6

    Are more likely to receive workers’ compensation. Union members also get their benefits faster, and return to work more quickly.7 When workers are injured, unions help workers through the often complicated process of filing for workers’ compensation and protect workers from employer retaliation.

    Have health insurance. Nearly 80% of unionized workers receive employer-provided health insurance, compared with 49% of non-union workers. Union members are also more likely to have short-term disability and life insurance coverage.


    1.Kathleen O’Leary and Scott Morgan, State Rankings 2002, U.S. Department of Labor.
    2. Lawrence Mishel with Matthew Walters, How Unions Help All Workers, EPI Briefing Paper #143 Aug. 2003; Henry S. Farber Are Unions Still a Threat? Wages and the Decline of Unions, 1973-2001, Princeton University Working Paper, 2002; Robert C. Johansson and Jay S. Coggins, "Union Density Effects in the Supermarket Industry," Journal of Labor Research 23.4 (Fall 2002).
    3. Mishel and Walters; John Schmitt, The Union Advantage for Low-Wage Workers, Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2008.
    4. Croft, Thomas, “Saving Jobs and Investing in Labor’s Future: The Steel Valley Authority,” Perspectives on Work (Summer), 2004.
    5. Harley Frazis, Maury Gittleman, Michael Horrigan, and Mary Joyce, “Employer-Provided Training: Results from a New Survey,” Monthly Labor Review 3-17 (May 1995).
    6. David Weil, "Enforcing OSHA: The Role of Labor Unions," Industrial Relations 30.1 (1991): 20-36.
    7. Barry T. Hirsch, David A. Macpherson, and J. Michael Dumond, “Workers’ Compensation Recipiency in Union and Nonunion Workplaces,” Industrial Labor Relations Review 50.2: 213-36; The Worker’s Story: Results of a Survey of Workers Injured in Wisconsin, Workers Compensation Research Institute, Dec. 1998.

  1. Unions Making a Difference for Business

    A union presence can have significant benefits for business. As CEO Bill Zahner, of architectural metal company A. Zahner put it,  "I know that working with the union can save dollars and get me the most talented work."  Unions not only make workplaces safer and more productive, but also raise professional standards and work with management to keep companies in business. Unions:

    Make the workplace more productive. Across the economy, unions raise productivity by 19% to 24% in manufacturing, 16% in hospitals, and between 17% and 38% in the construction sector.1

    Partner with companies to increase efficiency and productivity.

    • Since its workers organized in 1995, specialty rose producer Jackson & Perkins has seen an increase in productivity and a decrease in tardiness and absenteeism.
    • The International Association of Machinists partnered with Harley-Davidson Motor Company to create a High Performance Work Organization, in which workers and managers shared ideas about how to increase both the safety and productivity of factory tasks.
    • Through solutions adopted by labor-management committees, waiting periods for emergency room radiology services have fallen by 40% at Maimonides Medical Center

    Make workplaces safer. Union workers are often better trained on health and safety rules and union workplaces are more likely to enforce Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.2

    • In 2003 Alabama Power and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) partnered to create a safety program called Target Zero. Since the program’s introduction, Alabama Power’s reportable accidents have nosedived from 500 to 50 per year.

    Work with management to keep businesses up and running.

    • In the mid-1990s, the North Philadelphia Health System experienced an economic downturn and nearly had to close its doors. Unions stepped in and helped secure the money and political backing needed to keep the facilities open.
    • In 1994, the IUE (along with the Steel Valley Authority) worked with the General Cable Company in Pennsylvania to save a plant from closure. Since, General Cable has thrived, and this facility was recognized as one of North America’s "Best Plants" by Industry Week.3
    • A partnership with its unions helped propel Harley-Davidson Motor Company back to success after being on the brink of bankruptcy. By working together with its employees and their unions, Harley-Davidson was able stay in business and keep jobs in the United States. 

    Decrease turnover. Because unions improve communication in the workplace, workers can improve their situation without leaving, and unionized plants have less turnover.4

    • After a labor-management partnership was established at SCA Tissue North America, the employee turnover rate decreased by 29% in one of its high turnover locations.
    • Turnover decreased 20% during the first year of the union contract at Brightside Academy, an early education provider.

    Raise professional standards and increase opportunities for worker training. Workplaces with unions are more likely to offer formal training,5 and many unions operate their own training programs.

    • Dwayne McAninch, CEO and Chairman of McAninch Corporation, recognizes the value union labor brings to the company because, “they do an excellent job of training, testing, and certifying their members…We have high standards and so do they…”


    1. Dale Belman, “Unions, the Quality of Labor Relations, and Firm Performance,” in Unions and Economic Competitiveness, Lawrence Mishel and Paula B. Voos, eds., Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1992, 41-107

    2.David Weil, "Enforcing OSHA: The Role of Labor Unions," Industrial Relations 30.1 (1991): 20-36.

    3. Thomas Croft, "Saving Jobs and Investing in Labor’s Future: The Steel Valley Authority," Perspectives on Work, Summer 2004.

    4. Belman; Harley Shaiken, “The High Road to a Competitive Economy: A Labor Law Strategy,” Center for American Progress, June 25, 2004, pp. 7-8. 

    5. Harley J. Frazis, Diane E. Herz, and Michael W. Horrigan, “Employer-Provided Training: Results from a New Survey,” Monthly Labor Review 3–17; May 1995.


  1. Unions Making a Difference for Families

    Unions support America’s families. Good union jobs give working families security and flexibility in a changing economy, and unions help enact workplace protections—like paid sick leave, family leave, and medical leave—that are crucial for all working families. Specifically, unions:

    Support military families.

    • In 2007, the United Auto Workers (UAW) donated $15,000 to provide free phone cards to members of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed overseas. The UAW donated the money to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in support of Operation Uplink, which helps military families stay in touch during terms of military service.
    • Several unions participate in the Helmets to Hardhats program, which offers training and job placement in the construction industry to military veterans returning from active duty.

    Help lift families out of poverty. Unions raise wages the most for low- and middle-wage workers.  They also benefit young workers: union workers between 18 amnd 29 earn 12.4 percent more and have better benefits than their nonunion counterparts.2

    • Unions play a central role in the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, which since 1996 has trained and placed over 1,500 low-income residents of the Milwaukee area in family-supporting, high-tech jobs that include health care and other benefits.3
    • Similar community-based efforts exist in Pittsburgh, PA, and Western New York.

    Provide workers with job security when they need to respond to family care emergencies. One study reviewed 99 union arbitrations involving the employees who were fired or disciplined for missing work due to family care needs. The study found that in all but one case, the union’s filing of a grievance led to overturned dismissals or reduced discipline.4

    Give workers the right to alternative work arrangements—such as flexible hours, telecommuting, and compressed work weeks—which allow workers to balance family and childcare needs with work schedules. Union members also receive 14% more paid time off than non-union employees.5

    Increase workers’ access to childcare by creating childcare centers in the workplace, lobbying for childcare subsidies, and providing workers with childcare benefits through collective bargaining agreements.

    Help pass legislation important to working families, including:

    • The Washington, DC, Accrued Sick and Safe Days Act of 2007, requiring DC employers to provide workers with paid sick leave and paid time off for victims of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault. Unions continue to promote paid sick leave provisions in a number of states, including West Virginia and Ohio.
    • Paid family leave programs implemented in California and New Jersey in 2004 and 2008, guaranteeing paid leave for workers taking care of ill family members or new children.
    • The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, allowing employees to take unpaid leave during serious medical conditions or to care for sick family members or new children.
    • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, outlawing discrimination against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, and requiring employers to give pregnant women the same insurance, leave, or support given to employees with other medical conditions or with disabilities.


    1. Lawrence Mishel with Matthew Walters,“How Unions Help All Workers," EPI Briefing Paper #143 Aug. 2003; John Schmitt, "The Union Advantage for Low-Wage Workers," Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2008.
    2. John Schmitt, "Unions and Upward Mobility for Young Workers," Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2008.
    3. Eric Parker, “Workforce Development and Family-Supporting Jobs: The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership,” Perspectives on Work, Summer 2004.
    4. Joan Williams, “One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When "Opting Out" Is Not an Option,” Worklife Law, UC Hastings College of Law, 2006
    5.Mishel and Walters


  1. Unions Making a Difference for the Environment

    Unions help create healthy, sustainable communities which protect workers, the public, and the natural world. Unions:

    Partner with environmental groups to protect workers, the environment and the community.

    • Over 20 unions have endorsed the Apollo Alliance, which brings together leaders from business, labor, environmental, and local communities to support clean energy and investment in green-collar jobs.
    • Local and national labor organizations have joined with environmental, faith-based, community, and public health organizations in the Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports. The Coalition works to reduce pollution, improve efficiency, strengthen security, and promote workers’ rights at the Los Angeles and Long Beach Ports.

    Hold corporations accountable for pollution that damages worker and community health, as well as the natural environment. As leaders of the Blue Green Alliance, the United Steelworkers and Sierra Club not only support green-collar jobs and fair trade, but work to reduce toxic chemicals in the workplace and the environment. The Blue Green Alliance:

    Alert the public to environmental hazards that might otherwise stay hidden. At a DuPont plant in Niagara Falls, NY, members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers (PACE) were instrumental in exposing environmental and safety hazards.1

    Fight for federal regulations that protect workers and communities. In 2004, the Sierra Club and UNITE HERE supported stronger regulations for the laundry industry to protect both the community water supply and the workers who handle toxic chemicals.

    Support increased fuel efficiency standards and production of hybrid vehicles.

    Combat the spread of suburban sprawl, advocating instead for smart growth initiatives that call for reinvestment in our urban centers and public transportation systems.2

    Use collective bargaining to reduce the environmental footprint of America’s workplaces. SEIU advocates use of green cleaning products, public transportation benefits, and daytime cleaning of buildings, which reduces energy costs as well as benefiting workers’ health.


    1. E.I.Dupont de Nemours & Co, Inc. (Niagara Plant Employees Union and PACE Local 1-5025) Niagara Falls, NY, May 28, 2004, 3-CA-23449 et al, JD-47-04.
    2. Good Jobs First, Labor Leaders as Smart Growth Advocates, Aug. 2003.

  1. Unions Making a Difference for Health

    Unions work to keep us healthy. Healthcare workers’ unions make clinics and hospitals safer, more efficient, and more responsive to patient needs. And the labor movement is out in front in the campaign for affordable, quality health care for all. Unions:

    Improve quality of patient care.

    • Patients suffering heart attacks have a 5.5% greater chance of survival if their nurses are union members.1
    • Since Kaiser Permanente established its labor-management partnership, the integrated healthcare organization has experienced higher patient satisfaction and better performance.

    Enforce adequate hospital staffing levels. Studies show that surgical patients are more likely to die when nurse staffing levels are low,2 but higher nurse staffing is associated with shorter hospital stays3 and fewer patient complications.4 Nurses and their unions ensure higher staffing levels by bargaining for minimum staffing ratios and supporting nurse-patient ratio legislation at the state and federal level.

    Keep patients safe by supporting prohibitions on mandatory overtime for healthcare professionals. Among nurses, long shifts and working overtime at the end of a shift coincide with an increased rate of errors such as administering the wrong medication or dosage.5

    Address the nation’s nursing shortage. The support and better working conditions that unions provide ensure that more trained nurses remain in the profession.

    Improve communication at hospitals and ease the process of implementing new hospital practices through labor-management committees.6

    Lead the fight for quality, affordable healthcare for all. Unions educate voters, lobby Congress, and urge companies with union contracts to support affordable, quality health care.


    1. Michael Ash and Jean Ann Seago, “The Effect of Registered Nurses’ Unions on Heart-Attack Mortality,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 57.3: 422-442.
    2. Linda Aiken, PhD, RN, “Hospital Nurse Staffing and Patient Mortality, Nurse Burnout, and Job Dissatisfaction,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Oct. 22, 2002.
    3. Jack Needleman, PhD, Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, Nurse Staffing and Patient Outcomes in Hospitals, Harvard School of Public Health, 2001.
    4. Jack Needleman, PhD, Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, et al, “Nurse Staffing Nurse-Staffing Levels and Quality of Care in Hospitals,” The New England Journal of Medicine, May 30, 2002.
    5. Ann E. Rogers, et al, “The Working Hours Of Hospital Staff Nurses And Patient Safety,” Health Affairs, 23.4 (Jul/Aug2004): 202-212.
    6. Gil Preuss,“Committing to Care: Labor-Management Cooperation and Hospital Restructuring, Economic Policy Institute, 1998.  


  1. Unions Making a Difference for Equality

    Unions can be a powerful force for equality. Collective bargaining cuts down on employer favoritism, which helps women and people of color get a fair chance at work. Unions protect workers’ rights regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity, and union membership lifts wages significantly for women and people of color. Unions:

    Help pass legislation key to equal rights, including:

    • The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009
    • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
    • The Voting Rights Act of 1965
    • The Civil Rights Act of 1964
    • The Equal Pay Act of 1963
    Work for racial equality
    • Unions took an active role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, supporting the work of Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and others. In 1955 the NAACP called a strong labor movement “a powerful weapon in the struggle to end racial discrimination” in training and employment of black workers.
    • In 2003, auto maintenance workers claiming racial discrimination at U-Haul organized a union to fight for equitable wages and benefits. 
    • In 2008, the Teamsters joined the NAACP in standing up against racial discrimination and workers’ rights violations at New Era’s distribution center in Mobile, AL.
    • In 2008, SEIU joined with the National Conference of Black Mayors to address racial gaps in health care access and quality.

    Defend the rights of women in the workplace, fighting discrimination and working for wage equality. 

    • Unions supported Lilly Ledbetter in her claim of gender-based wage discrimination, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, and helped pass legislation making it easier for victims of wage discrimination to seek compensation.  

    Support equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

    • In California, most major unions opposed Proposition 8, which overturned marriage equality for same-sex couples. 
    • In Michigan, Local 6000 of the United Auto Workers helped defend state workers whose domestic partner benefits had come under attack by the same groups that worked to pass the state’s recent ban on gay marriage.
    • Several unions have officially endorsed civil marriage equality.

    Oppose discrimination and firing based on immigration status and speak out against illegal detentions and human rights abuses. Many unions support comprehensive immigration reform, and unionized immigrant workers make 17% more than their non-union peers.

    Have clear economic benefits for people of color.
    • Latino union members make 51% more than nonunion Latino workers, and are more likely to have health and retirement benefits.1
    • African-American union members make 35% more then their non-union counterparts. Unionized black workers are also more likely to have health and retirement benefits.2
    • Asian-American union members make 4% more than non-union Asian American workers.

    Boost working women’s earning power.

    • Women in unions make 33% more non-union women, and are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and pensions.3 The benefits of union membership are especially large for women in low-wage occupations.3
    • In 2002, hundreds of the largely female teaching assistants and teacher aides in the Ithaca, NY, school district organized a union and bargained to raise the starting salary from $6.72 an hour to $10.05 an hour.


    1. John Schmitt, Unions and Upward Mobility for Latino Workers, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Sept. 2008
    2. John Schmitt, Unions and Upward Mobility for African-American Workers, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Apr. 2008
    3. John Schmitt, Unions and Upward Mobility for Women Workers, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Dec. 2008

About Our Organization

American Rights at Work is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the freedom of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers.


» More about us

Connect with Us

  del.icio.us  facebook  youtube

  technorati_32x32.png  twitter  flickr