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Number of unionized employees declines in state

Study says labor unions play big role in boosting wages

A new report from the Oregon Center for Public Policy concludes that a decline in unionization since the late 1970s coincides with a widening gap between the highest-income and all other workers in Oregon.

The report was released Wednesday, Sept. 2, by the Silverton think tank and timed for the Labor Day holiday.

While the report says the decline in Oregon’s unionized workforce is not a complete explanation for growing income inequality, it does reflect similar national trends between 1979 and 2014.

“The decline in union representation is an important part of the story of the rise of economic inequality in Oregon,” according to the report. “Increased unionization would ease inequality and help low- and middle-income Oregonians prosper.”

As the proportion of Oregon’s unionized workforce declined from 33 to 15 percent between 1979 and 2013, the report says the share of income going to Oregon’s low- and middle-wage households (the bottom 60 percent) dropped from 25 to 20 percent.

Janet Bauer, a policy analyst for the center, prepared the Oregon numbers for the report.

The report, financed by several foundations, unions and individuals, makes these points:

n Union representation boosts wages of Oregon’s lowest-paid workers (the bottom 10 percent) by 21 percent over similarly situated nonunion workers, 17 percent more for middle-wage workers, and 6 percent more for the top 10 percent of earners.

Specifically, a middle-wage worker earning the state median of $17.02 per hour — $35,400 annually — can expect an average of $41,200 with a similar union job.

“In industries where unions are prevalent, even nonunionized workers receive higher wages than similar workers in less unionized industries,” according to the report. “This is because the presence of unions in an industry can induce nonunion employers to raise wages and benefits to forestall unionizing campaigns and to compete for employees.”

n Union representation of Oregon’s workforce has declined over the past three decades, from 33 percent in 1979 to 15 percent in 2006, just before the start of the most recent economic downturn. The unionized share rose slightly as nonunion jobs were reduced during the downturn, but in 2014, that figure stood at 17 percent.

The decline is notable in the private sector, which employs about 80 percent of Oregon’s total workforce. In 1983, unionization accounted for 18 percent; in 2014, just 9 percent. Public-sector unionization has been stable.

“The decline in historically heavily unionized industries in Oregon such as construction and manufacturing, together with obstacles confronting workers trying to organize in emerging industries, largely account for the drop in the unionization rate in the state,” according to the report.

“Over the past two decades in particular, private sector employers across the country have taken aggressive action to oppose workers’ efforts to organize.”

n Wages, when adjusted for inflation, have declined for low- and middle-wage workers but increased for top-wage earners in Oregon. From 1979 to 2014, Oregon’s median wage (half earn more and half earn less) dipped from $17.79 to $17.02 per hour, and for the bottom 10 percent of workers, the wage dropped from $9.48 to $9.18 per hour. But for the top 10 percent, wages have risen from $32.52 to $40.15 per hour.

For men in the top bracket, wages rose 26 percent to $44.41 per hour from 1980 to 2014, but for median-wage earners, wages fell 19 percent to $17.95. Men had dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing, which have been hit harder by declines in unionization.

Median-wage women have done better, but top-earning women still saw their incomes rise three times faster.

“Researchers have found the decline in unionization accounts for one-third of the rise in wage inequality among men and one-fifth among women,” according to the report.

— pwong@Pamplin