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Falling Union Membership and Rising Wage Inequality: What's the Connection?

  • David Card

This paper presents new evidence on the effects of changing union membership on trends in wage dispersion in the U.S. labor market. I use data from the mid-1970s and early 1990s to compare union membership rates for workers in different deciles of the wage distribution, and to calculate the effects of shifting unionism on wage inequality. Among men, union rates have fallen for most groups, with larger declines among the lowest-wage workers. I estimate that the decline in unions explains 10-20 percent of the rise in male wage inequality over the past 25 years. Among women, union membership has fallen for low-wage workers but risen for high-wage workers, with little change overall. Shifting union patterns have therefore had little effect on female inequality, and may have actually accentuated the rise in inequality. Economy-wide trends in union membership mask a sharp divergence between the private sector, where unions have been declining, and the public sector, where union membership rates have actually risen for most groups. Calculations by sector suggest that unions have been a significant force in forestalling the rise in wage inequality among public sector workers of both genders.

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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w6520.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 6520.

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Date of creation: Apr 1998
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6520
Note: LS
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  1. Richard B. Freeman, 1980. "Unionism and the dispersion of wages," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 34(1), pages 3-23, October.
  2. Nidardo, J. & Fortin, N. & Lemieux, T., 1994. "Labor Market Institutions and the Distribution of Wages, 1973-1992: A Semiparametric Approach," Papers 93-94-15, California Irvine - School of Social Sciences.
  3. Dale Belman & John S. Heywood & John Lund, 1997. "Public sector earnings and the extent of unionization," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 50(4), pages 610-628, July.
  4. David Card & Thomas Lemieux, 1993. "Wage Dispersion, Returns to Skill, and Black-White Wage Differentials," NBER Working Papers 4365, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Blackburn-Mckinley, L. & Bloom, D.E. & Freeman, R.B., 1989. "The Declining Economic Position Of Less-Skilled American Males," Discussion Papers 1989_41, Columbia University, Department of Economics.
  6. David Card & Thomas Lemieux & W. Craig Riddell, 2004. "Unions and Wage Inequality," Journal of Labor Research, Transaction Publishers, vol. 25(4), pages 519-562, October.
  7. 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.
  8. Card, David, 1996. "The Effect of Unions on the Structure of Wages: A Longitudinal Analysis," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 64(4), pages 957-79, July.
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