New report sheds light on ‘state of the unions’ in Minnesota

Co-authors of "The State of the Unions 2016," Monica Bielski Boris (L) and Jill Manzo, appear at a State Fair press conference with MN AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Julie Blaha (R).

Co-authors of “The State of the Unions 2016,” Monica Bielski Boris (L) and Jill Manzo, appear at a State Fair press conference with MN AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Julie Blaha (R).


Income inequality is on the rise in Minnesota, and disparities between white workers and workers of color continue to widen. Unions are key to reversing both of those trends, according to a new report unveiled just in time for Labor Day.

Co-authored by four researchers, “The State of the Unions 2016” takes a deep dive into economic and employment data to determine the impact of collective bargaining on Minnesota’s economy, workforce and communities.

The findings, Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Julie Blaha said during a press conference today at the Minnesota State Fair, confirm “what union members already know” – that a union job is, for most working people, a ticket into the middle class.

The authors describe unions as “one of the most effective anti-poverty institutions in Minnesota,” noting that the state’s union members enjoy an 11 percent wage premium, on average, over their non-union counterparts. That “union effect” is even more pronounced among Minnesota’s workers of color, boosting union members’ earnings by more than 17 percent.

Minnesota has drawn accolades from national publications for its current business climate and skilled workforce, and the state’s economy has outperformed the nation as whole since the Great Recession ended in 2009.

But disparities between the state’s white workers and workers of color are among the worst in the nation. In 2012, people of color working full-time jobs were three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, a divide that has increased steadily since 1980.

KerryJo Felder, member of the Minneapolis-based People of Color Union Members caucus, acknowledged there is no silver-bullet solution to Minnesota’s racial disparities, but “one of the most effective ways to reduce racial income inequality is for non-white workers to continue organizing,” she said.

“When your wages and benefits are clearly spelled out through a union contract, that reduces the opportunity for discrimination,” Felder said. “Many contracts also include procedures for getting promoted on the job, giving everyone equal access to higher-paying positions.”

The union effect is critical, too, for women and veterans in Minnesota. One in five veterans working in Minnesota is a union member, one of the report’s authors, Monica Bielski Boris of the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service, said.

Efforts to weaken collective bargaining, she added, have a negative impact on women, veterans and people of color working in Minnesota. That includes political attacks like Right to Work and union-avoidance campaigns run by employers.

Recent studies also indicate that attacks on collective bargaining depress not only union members’ wages, but all workers’ wages. Nonunion workers benefit from pay and benefit standards set by union employers in their industry, researchers from the Economic Policy Institute found in a report released earlier this week.

As an example, Bielski Boris pointed to UPS, where drivers are members of the Teamsters union, and non-union FedEx, which offers its drivers similar wages and benefits – both to attract qualified workers and to discourage union organizing.

When unions are strong, Bielski Boris said, “non-union employers have to compete with union employers (for qualified workers), so we see an uptick in wages.”

“The State of the Unions 2016” was authored by researchers from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute, the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois.

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