Essential workers during COVID-19: At risk and lacking union representation

Thursday, September 3, 2020
By Jimmy O’Donnell, Brookings

Just over a year ago, The Hamilton Project released an economic analysis on private sector labor unions. In that piece, we documented private sector unions’ decades-long decline (see figure 1), discussed the labor market effects of unions, and explored policies to make collective bargaining easier for workers. When we released that report, the economy was much stronger: the unemployment rate was nearing a historic low, and wages were beginning to rise even for workers at the bottom.

However, as a result of the novel coronavirus (hereafter COVID-19) pandemic and its associated economic contraction, the unemployment rate has remained above 10 percent since April. This massive economic disruption has raised several new labor market challenges, while also magnifying longer-term structural problems. In this blog, I extend our Hamilton Project analysis from last year, show how workplace conditions have changed for workers, and discuss the potential role for private-sector labor unions.

Labor unions have traditionally been one effective channel for workers to raise concerns about workplace safety and demand action from their employers. Research has found that union members are more likely than nonunion members to utilize internal and external mechanisms to address workplace complaints; recent work by Aaron Sojourner and Jooyoung Yang shows that unionized workplaces are 30 percent more likely to face an inspection for a health or safety violation. (This is particularly important today given that some reports have found that employers may be aggressively suppressing their workers from speaking out about COVID-related concerns).

Read the full story from Brookings

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