In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the black union membership rate to be 12.6 percent, equivalent to 2,210,000 black union members. While the overall union membership rate was unchanged in 2017 in the United States, it actually fell by 0.4 percentage points for black workers, who had a union membership rate of 13 percent in 2016. All else equal, if black union density had not fallen (it increased for white and Hispanic workers), an additional 70,000 black workers would be union members in 2017. This is particularly important for wages because black union members are reported by the BLS to earn $164 more per week than nonunion black workers.

Multiplying this union wage premium by the number of union members lost to the single-year drop in black union density shows a union-density-related wage loss for black workers of more than $597,000,000 in 2017. In contrast, union density for white workers increased by 0.1 percentage points, generating a one-year wage boost of nearly $1,274,000,000 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Estimated One-Year Wage Effect from Change in Union Density in 2017
Millions of US Dollars


Source: Author’s calculations from Bureau of Labor Statistics' recent union report.

While black union membership fell by 0.4 percentage points in 2017 and 70,000 black workers missed out on the union wage premium, black union membership has fallen by an astounding 19.1 percentage points since 1983. As a result of this long-term trend, millions of black workers have missed out, not only on the wage premium that comes with union membership, but on better access to health and retirement benefits, as described in detail by Cherrie Bucknor in her report ”Black Workers, Unions, and Inequality.”

Policy differences between states offer insight into the divergence in outcomes in 2017 and long-term trends more generally. State policies have a big impact on union density: 6.3 percent of workers are union members in “right-to-work” states (states that prohibit contracts requiring that all workers who benefit from a union contract share in the cost), compared to 15.4 percent in states without the union-weakening rules. And states with lots of black workers have been particularly intense in their assault on unions. Right-to-work laws cover about half of all workers (50.4 percent in 2017), but cover 61 percent of black workers. So, while President Trump has asked someone to inform Jay-Z that his administration has the best policies for black workers, Republicans are putting in place policies that reduce black wages and benefits (both Kentucky and Missouri became right-to-work during 2017).

Beyond lower wages, in a fascinating new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson point out one possible explanation for Republicans putting in so much effort to weaken unions in states where a large share of workers are black. The authors find that passing a right-to-work law reduces voter turnout by 2 to 3 percentage points. Cumulatively, right-to-work laws have reduced the Democratic vote share in local, state, and national elections.