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The Effect of Unions on the Distribution of Wages: Redistribution or Relabelling?


  • David Card


This paper re-examines the connection between unions and wage inequality, focusing on three questions: (1) How does the union wage effect vary across the wage distribution? (2) What is the effect of unionism on the overall variance of wages at the end of the 1980s? (3) How much of the increase in the variance of wages over the 1970s and 1980s can be attributed to changes in the level and distribution of union coverage? Cross-sectional union wage gap estimates vary over the wage distribution, ranging from over 30 percent for lower wage workers to 10 percent for higher wage workers. Using a longitudinal estimation technique that accounts for misclassification errors in union status, I find that this variation represents a combination of a truly larger wage effect for lower-paid workers, and differential selection biases. The estimated effect of unions on the variance of wages in the late 1980s is relatively modest. Nevertheless, changes in the level and pattern of unionism--particularly the decline of unions among lower wage workers -- have been an important component of the growth in wage inequality. Changes in unionization account for one-fifth of the increase of the variance of adult male wages between 1973 and 1987.

Suggested Citation

  • David Card, 1992. "The Effect of Unions on the Distribution of Wages: Redistribution or Relabelling?," NBER Working Papers 4195, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:4195
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Ashenfelter, Orley, 1972. "Racial Discrimination and Trade Unionism," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 80(3), pages 435-464, May-June.
    2. Farber, Henry S, 1990. "The Decline of Unionization in the United States: What Can Be Learned from Recent Experience," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 8(1), pages 75-105, January.
    3. Richard B. Freeman, 1980. "Unionism and the Dispersion of Wages," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 34(1), pages 3-23, October.
    4. McKinley L. Blackburn & David E. Bloom & Richard B. Freeman, 1989. "The Declining Economic Position of Less-Skilled American Males," NBER Working Papers 3186, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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