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Lost Unions and Lost Ground

The decline of organized labor has helped worsen the racial gap

The near disappearance of private sector unions in recent times has made many of America’s economic and social problems worse, according to a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece co-authored by MPRC Faculty Associate Meredith Kleykamp and University of Washington sociologist Jake Rosenfeld.

Before World War II, many African Americans left agricultural work in the South to seek new manufacturing jobs in the Midwest and Northeast, just as expanding factories were targeted by union organizers. Unions offered protection from racist practices that were common in many non-union jobs. Unions attracted people of color by promising stable employment and rising wages. But when union membership began to decline, many of these benefits disappeared.

Kleykamp and Rosenfeld used 40 years of nationally representative data to estimate what wage trends might have looked like if union membership had remained at the same high rates as in the late 1970s. They concluded that racial wage inequality among women in the private sector would have been reduced by as much as 30%. African American men would be earning about $50 more per week today, or $2,600 per year.

Kleykamp and Rosenfeld describe the American labor movement as “a remarkably inclusive institution that gave a vital boost to the economic fortunes of African American as well as white workers and their families.”

The article also appeared on and

Read the Los Angeles Times article