By Steven Greenhouse
Sep. 5, 2011
The decline in organized labor’s power and membership has played a larger role in fostering increased wage inequality in the United States than is generally thought, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review this month.
The study, “Unions, Norms and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality,” found that the decline in union power and density since 1973 explained a third of the increase in wage inequality among men since then, and a fifth of the increased inequality among women.
The study noted that from 1973 to 2007, union membership in the private sector dropped to 8 percent from 34 percent among men and to 6 percent from 16 percent among women. During that time, wage inequality in the private sector increased by more than 40 percent, the study found.
While many academics argue that increased inequality in educational attainment has played a major role in expanding wage inequality, the new study reaches a surprising conclusion, saying, “The decline of the U.S. labor movement has added as much to men’s wage inequality as has the relative increase in pay for college graduates.” The study adds that “union decline contributes just half as much as education to the overall rise in women’s wage inequality.”
The study was written by Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at the University of Washington.