How Unions Help Build the American Dream

Both Democrats and Republicans stress that the ability for people to move up the economic ladder to build better lives is at the heart of the American Dream. But new data from the Pew Center on the States pits the Republican tenet on economic mobility against another deeply held Republican belief that unions are a heavy and evil anchor on the economy that must be cut away.  

Where there is a strong union movement, there is more economic mobility. If unions are strengthened, upward mobility will increase.

David Madland and Nick Bunker at the Center for American Progress Action Fund write in a new issue brief looking at the Pew figures:

Six of the eight most mobile states have high unionization rates—Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Utah, Massachusetts, Colorado and Maryland—and all but 1 of the 10 least mobile states—South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia, Georgia and Oklahoma—have low unionization rates and laws that discourage unionization.

The 10 states with the highest unionization rates—New York, Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Oregon—perform considerably better on a range of measures of mobility than the 10 states with the lowest levels of unionization.

What’s the connection between unions and greater opportunity for people to move up? Midland and Bunker outline several reasons:

First, unions help workers negotiate for higher and rising wages. Labor unions are particularly effective at boosting the wages and mobility of young, immigrant, low-wage and African American workers. Unions also push for increased job training and career ladders, which both help boost mobility over a lifetime.

It’s not just in the workplace where there is a union advantage. Labor unions, they note, help get ordinary citizens involved in politics to advocate for public policies that help boost mobility such as the minimum wage and investments in education. States with higher levels of unionization have more generous social safety nets that lift workers up, as well as cushion blows.

Mitt Romney’s plan to boost economic mobility and build a wider path to the middle class centers on cutting taxes for the wealthy—who have long passed through the middle class on their way to gated communities and private islands. But, say Madland and Bunker, the tight connection to unionization and upward mobility shows:  

Policymakers that are concerned about boosting mobility and strengthening the middle class should add increasing the strength of organized labor to their list of policy solutions.

Read the full report “Unions Boost Economic Mobility in U.S. States  or download the report.