Poll: Minorities View Labor Unions More Favorably

In this April 1, 2011 photo, Zen hotel maid Ereyda Yanez cleans a hotel bathroom where she works in Palo Alto, Calif. The US service sector, which employs nearly 90 percent of the nation's work force, grew for the 17th straight month in April, though at the slowest pace since August. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (National Journal)

For many years, labor unions paved the road to middle-class living for many American families, and a new survey finds that minorities still hold in high esteem the institutions that helped to raise minimum wage and obtain overtime pay for blue-collar workers.

Apollo Group/National Journal Next America polling shows that 73 percent of African-Americans regard unions either "very favorably" or "mostly favorably," followed by 54 percent of Latinos and 47 percent of whites.

The findings underscore the role that labor unions play in the lives of blacks and Latinos workers, and how many people have historically looked to unions to help with pay increases. Nationally, compared with whites on similar jobs, Latinos and blacks earn an estimated 74 cents and 66 cents to the dollar, respectively.

As an example, collective bargaining increases Latino workers' earnings collectively by as much as 43 percent, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a recent event on the Latino workforce.

Black workers are most likely to be unionized, federal figures show.

In comparison, here is the ratio, by race and ethnicity, of the U.S. workforce, plus the percentage who are in unions, based on 2011 figures:

  • Blacks: 9.4 percent and 13.5 percent.
  • Whites: 71.7 percent and 11.6 percent.
  • Asians: 4.2 percent and 10.1 percent.
  • Hispanics: 12.8 percent and 9.7 percent.

A 2008 analysis by the Center for Economic Policy Research supports the Apollo/Next America poll results that seemingly have many people placing great faith in unions as offering help to a better working wage.

The CEP research found that unionized negotiations increase the pay of blacks and Latino workers by more than $2 per hour. Minorities and immigrants in low-wage unionized occupations are also more likely to have health insurance and a pension plan.

Yet federal figures show that labor unions have been in decline for several decades. Today, about 14.8 million workers belong to a union, down from 17.7 million in the early 1980s. The face of the labor unions has also gradually transformed in the past 40 years, partly as a result of the demographic shifts in the country.

Increasingly, unions have pushed Latino immigrants to become more civically active.

More than 50 percent of that unionized labor force in 1983 was male and white. Today, this bloc makes up about 38 percent, while the shares of Latinos and Asians are increasing.

The labor unions are also changing to adapt to the growing Latino workforce, including workers in sectors not traditionally unionized, such as car washers.

However, the largest unions, serving 71 percent of total U.S. members, address the issues of government workers, teachers, library workers, and police and fire occupations; jobs that employ a high percentage of low-income or low-skilled workers, like farming, fishing and forestry, account for only 3.4 percent of union membership.

Despite their efforts to unionize, hospitality salary workers have declined slightly in the past three years.