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The Decline of Labor Unions

One of the most important developments accompanying industrialization in the nineteenth century was the rise of labor unions and their conflict with management over wages and working conditions (Dubofsky & Dulles, 2010). [6]The pay that workers received was quite low, and the conditions in which they worked were often miserable. The typical employee worked at least ten hours a day for six or seven days a week, with almost no overtime pay and no paid vacations or holidays. To improve wages and working conditions, many labor unions were founded after the Civil War, only to meet determined opposition from companies, the government, and the courts. Companies told each other which workers were suspected of being union members, and these workers were then prevented from getting jobs. Strikers were often arrested for violating laws prohibiting strikes. When juries began finding them not guilty, employers turned to asking judges for injunctions that prohibited strikes. Workers who then went on strike were held in contempt of court by the judge as juries were kept out of the process.

From the 1870s through the 1930s, labor unions fought companies over issues such as low wages and substandard working conditions.

Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, 20Prints/80-39_1.jpg.
Labor strife also marked the Great Depression, when masses of people blamed business leaders for their economic plight. Huge sit-ins and other labor protests occurred at auto plants in Detroit. In response, the Congress passed several laws that gave workers a minimum wage, the right to join unions, a maximum-hour workweek, and other rights that Americans now take for granted.

Today labor unions have lost some of their influence, especially as postindustrialization has supplanted the industrial economy and as the United States has lost much of its manufacturing base. Four decades ago, about one-fourth of all private-sector nonagricultural workers belonged to labor unions. By 1985 this figure had dropped to 14.6 percent, and today it stands at only 7.2 percent (Hirsch & Macpherson, 2011). [7] In response, labor unions have intensified their efforts to increase their membership, only to find that US labor laws are filled with loopholes that allow companies to prevent their workers from forming a union. For example, after a company’s workers vote to join a union, companies can appeal the vote, and it can take several years for courts to order the company to recognize the union. In the meantime, the low wages, substandard working conditions, and other factors that motivated workers to want to join a union are allowed to continue.

Just as the growth of unions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped to raise workers’ wages, the decline of unions has lowered wages. Two reasons explain this decline (Mishel et al., 2009). [8] First, union workers earn about 14 percent more than nonunion workers (controlling for experience, education, occupation, and other factors), a phenomenon known as the union wage premium. Because fewer workers are now in unions than four decades ago, they are less likely to benefit from this premium. Second, as unions have declined, there has been less pressure on nonunion employers to raise their wages to match union wages.

Because the union wage premium is greater for African Americans and Latinos than for whites, the wage decline caused by the decline of unions has probably been steeper for those two groups than for whites. It is also true that union workers are more likely than nonunion workers to be covered by employer-paid health insurance and also to have lower health premiums and deductibles. The decline of unions has thus meant that the average worker today is less likely to have employer-paid health insurance and, if they do, more likely to have higher premiums and deductibles.


Unemployment is a fact of life. There will always be people laid off or fired, who voluntarily quit their jobs, or who just graduated school and are still looking for work. But most unemployed people are involuntarily unemployed, and for them the financial and psychological consequences can be devastating, as we saw in the news story that began this chapter.

Unemployment rates rise and fall with the economy, and the national unemployment rate was as high as 10.2 percent in October 2009 amid the Great Recession that began almost two years earlier. It was still 8.3 percent in February 2012, amounting to almost 13 million people. But whether unemployment is high or low, it always varies by race and ethnicity, with African American and Latino unemployment rates much higher than the white rate (see Figure 12.3 "Race, Ethnicity, and Unemployment Rate, February 2012"). Unemployment is also higher for younger people than for older people. In February 2012, 23.8 percent of all teenagers in the labor force (aged 16–19) were unemployed, a figure three times higher than that for adults. The unemployment rate for African Americans in this age group was a very high 34.7 percent, twice as high as the 21.3 percent figure for whites in this age group (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). [9]

Figure 12.3 Race, Ethnicity, and Unemployment Rate, February 2012

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012). Employment & earnings online. Retrieved from

Unemployment figures are misleading in an important respect, as they do not include people who are underemployed. Underemployment includes the unemployed and also two other types of people: (a) those who are working part-time but who want to work full-time—the so-called marginally attached, and (b) those who have stopped looking for work because they have not been able to find a job. Many economists think that underemployment provides a more accurate measure than unemployment of the number of people with employment problems.

For example, in December 2011, when the unemployment rate was 8.5 percent and 13 million people were officially unemployed, the underemployment rate was 15.2 percent, equal to 23.8 million people (Shierholz, 2012). [10] These figures are almost twice as high as the official unemployment figures. Reflecting the racial/ethnic disparity in unemployment, 24.4 percent of African American workers and 22.3 percent of Latino workers were underemployed, compared to only 12.5 percent of white workers. Reflecting on the great amount of underemployment during the Great Recession, one economist commented, “When you combine the long-term unemployed with those who are dropping out and those who are working part time because they can’t find anything else, it is just far beyond anything we’ve seen in the job market since the 1930s” (Herbert, 2010, p. A25). [11]

We have just seen that unemployment rises when the economy falters and that race and ethnicity affect the probability of being unemployed. These two facts provide evidence supporting the sociological imagination (see Chapter 1 "Understanding Social Problems"). As C. Wright Mills (1959) [12] emphasized in his original discussion of this concept, unemployment is best viewed more as a public issue than as a personal trouble. When so many people are unemployed during an economic recession and when there is such striking evidence of higher unemployment rates among the persons of color who have the least opportunity for the education and training needed to obtain and keep a job, it is evident that high unemployment rates reflect a public issue rather than just a collection of public troubles.

Several kinds of problems make it difficult for people of color to be hired into jobs and thus contribute to the racial/ethnic disparity in unemployment. ThePara 12.142 box discusses these problems.

Applying Social Research

Race, Ethnicity, and Employment

As the text discusses, people of color are more likely than whites to be unemployed or underemployed. While a relative lack of education helps explain these higher rates for people of color, other kinds of problems are also apparent.

One problem is racial discrimination on the part of employers, regardless of how conscious employers are of their discriminatory behavior. Chapter 4 "Gender Inequality" recounted a study by sociologist Devah Pager (2003),[13] who had young white and African American men apply independently in person for various jobs in Milwaukee. These men wore the same type of clothing and reported similar levels of education and other qualifications. Some said they had a criminal record, while others said they had not committed any crimes. In striking evidence of racial discrimination in hiring, African American applicants without a criminal record were hired at the same low rate as white applicants with a criminal record.

Pager and sociologists Bruce Western and Bart Bonikowski also investigated racial discrimination in another field experiment in New York City (Pager, Bonikowski, & Western, 2009). [14] They had white, African American, and Latino “testers,” all of them “well-spoken, clean-cut young men” (p. 781), apply in person to low-level service jobs (e.g., retail sales and delivery drivers) requiring no more than a high school education; all the testers had similar (hypothetical) qualifications. Almost one-third (31 percent) of white testers received a call back or job offer, compared to only 25.2 percent of Latino testers and 15.2 percent of African American testers. The researchers concluded that their findings “add to a large research program demonstrating the continuing contribution of discrimination to racial inequality in the post-civil rights era” (p. 794).

Other kinds of evidence also reveal racial discrimination in hiring. Two scholars sent job applications in response to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2003). [15] They randomly assigned the applications to feature either a “white-sounding” name (e.g., Emily or Greg) or an “African American–sounding” name (e.g., Jamal and Lakisha). White names received 50 percent more callbacks than African American names for job interviews.

Racial differences in access to the informal networks that are often so important in finding a job also contribute to the racial/ethnic disparity in employment. In a study using data from a nationwide survey of a random sample of Americans, sociologist Steve McDonald and colleagues found that people of color and women are less likely than white males to receive informal word of vacant, high-level supervisory positions (McDonald, Nan, & Ao, 2009). [16]

As these studies indicate, research by sociologists and other social scientists reveals that race and ethnicity continue to make a difference in employment prospects for Americans. This body of research reveals clear evidence of discrimination, conscious or unconscious, in hiring and also of racial/ethnic differences in access to the informal networks that are often so important for hiring. By uncovering this evidence, these studies underscore the need to address discrimination, access to informal networks, and other factors that contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in employment.

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