Do Unions or the Lack of Account for U.S. Wage Inequalities?

November 28, 2011

Union membership has fallen sharply in the United States over the past three decades while at the same time the schism between rich and poor has grown. How do the two trends relate? That is the question explored in a new research paper, “Union, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality,” co-authored by Harvard Professor Bruce Western and University of Washington Assistant Professor Jake Rosenfeld.

Western and Rosenfeld analyze data ranging back to the 1970s when, they write, "one in three male workers were organized, [and] unions were often prominent voices for equity, not just for their members, but for all workers.”

The authors cite evidence showing that as union membership declined in recent decades, so has pay equity, among both unionized and non-unionized workers.

“The decline of organized labor among men contributes as much to rising wage inequality as does the growing stratification of pay by education,” the authors conclude.

“Overall trends were driven by movements at the top and the bottom of the wage distribution. Increasing inequality in the late1970s and 1980s reflected falling wages at the bottom and rising wages at the top of the distribution. Since the late 1980s, the growth in wage inequality has been propelled by wage increases for the highest-paid workers.”

Bruce Western is Professor of Sociology and director of the Kennedy School's Wiener Center for Social Policy. His research interests are in the field of social stratification and inequality, political sociology, and statistical methods. He is the author of “Punishment and Inequality in America,” a study of the growth and social impact of the American penal system.

Bruce Western

Bruce Western, director Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

“Overall trends were driven by movements at the top and the bottom of the wage distribution," wrote Western.

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