RELEASE: Unions Provide a Voice for Workers in Public Policy

UC Berkeley Labor Center

For Immediate Release

CONTACT: Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Communications (510) 604-2289
Jacqueline Sullivan
or Penelope Whitney

Spokespeople available in Spanish and English

Berkeley — A new study from UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education shows that California’s unions have had a strong impact on working families, regardless of union status, through their engagement in public policy. The third brief in a series, the findings were released as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue a ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that threatens to weaken public sector unions. (See below for high points of the other two briefs).

“Unions provide the most important counterbalance to corporate power in American politics,” said report co-author Ken Jacobs. “While business interests spend far more on elections and lobbying, unions’ greatest political power comes from their members.”

In recent years, California passed a wide range of public policy measures that were initiated or backed by the state’s unions.

  • In 2016, California passed a $15 minimum wage. When it is fully implemented in 2023, together with local minimum wage increases, the law will improve incomes for 6.4 million low-wage workers by a combined $23 billion a year. This is even larger than the estimated effect of collective bargaining on wages in the state ($18.5 billion).
  • Prior to 2014, nearly 40 percent of workers in the state had no access to paid sick leave at their job. Most are now guaranteed three paid sick days a year as a result of the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act.
  • Other union-backed policies address workplace safety, provide protections against wage theft, and address sexual harassment on the job.
  • Unions’ engagement in policy is not limited to workplace protections. In the past few years alone labor-supported efforts ensured continued school funding during the Great Recession, protected patients from receiving surprise out-of-network medical bills, created greater transparency in prescription drug pricing in the state, and supported development of vital infrastructure–including transit, housing and water.

The study, “The Union Effect in California #3: A Voice for Workers in Public Policy,” is the third in a series. The reports collectively show how unions improve the lives of all working people in California, both union and non-union, and put dollars into local economies.

Highlights from the first two briefs follow.

The Union Effect in California #1: Wages, Benefits, and Use of Public Safety Net Programs, found:

  • Workers covered by a union contract in California earn an average of 12.9 percent more than non-union workers with similar demographic characteristics and working in similar industries.
  • Overall, we estimate that unions increase workers’ earnings in California by $18.5 billion annually through collective bargaining.
  • We estimate that 670,000 more Californians have health insurance through their employer as a result of collective bargaining in California, and 830,000 more Californians are offered retirement plans due to collective bargaining.
  • Unions decrease by 30.6 percent the likelihood that a worker is in a family where at least one member is enrolled in a public safety net program, and 30.9 percent the likelihood that a family member will be enrolled in Medi-Cal.

The Union Effect in California #2: Gains for Women, Workers of Color, and Immigrants found that unions reduce race and gender wage disparities in the workplace:

  • >Unions increase wages and improve benefits for all workers, but the greatest effects are for those workers who start the farthest behind.
  • Union coverage increases wages by 26 percent for women, compared to 15 percent for men.
  • Union coverage has a disproportionate effect on Black workers’ wages (19 percent) and Latino/a workers’ wages (40 percent) compared to White workers’ wages (9 percent).
  • Workers in California are more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance through their employer if they are covered by a union contract, with women, workers of color, and immigrants seeing the largest gains.

Ken Jacobs, co-author of Reports 1 and 3
Chair, UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, (510) 643-2621

Sarah Thomason, co-author of Reports 1 and 2
Research and Policy Associate, Center for Labor Research and Education, (510) 415-5194

Sarah is available for interviews in English and Spanish.