Union members earn $1.3 million more than non-union over lifetime

Union membership comes with a $1.3 million price tag in lifetime earnings, a new study reveals.

This study makes the point that point-in-time estimates of the union premium overlook the cumulative earnings advantages of long-term, persistent union membership.

Using a sample of men from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from 1969 to 2019, the authors investigate how lifetime union membership contributes to earnings advantages. They find:

• $1.3 million – Unionization throughout one’s career is associated with a $1.3 million mean increase in lifetime earnings, larger than the average gains from completing college.

• Lifetime – The lifetime earnings gains are channeled entirely through higher hourly wages and occur despite earlier-than-average retirement for persistently unionized men.

• Longevity – The union wage premium is not constant throughout a worker’s career; instead, it increases with more years of union membership. The cumulative advantages of union membership for workers’ economic well-being are far greater than point-in-time estimates suggest.

In fact, a worker without a college degree who has been in a union for 100 percent of his career is actually expected to make more than a non-union worker with a college degree.

The researchers zoomed in on men who would’ve been in their late 20s in the 1960s and 1970s and tracked their earnings through retirement as well as whether or not they were union members. Workers who are never in a union were projected to earn around $2.1 million their whole careers, while those who were in unions for their whole careers were estimated to make $3.4 million.

The study was conducted at Cornell University’s ILR Review by researchers Zachary Parolin of Bocconi University and Tom VanHeuvelen of University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

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