When it comes to poverty in America, unemployment is often named as the biggest cause, and lowering unemployment is the conventional remedy for addressing rising poverty. While increasing employment is good, this solution ignores the problem of the working poor–people who have jobs and yet still live below the poverty line. The number of working poor is on the rise, and was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to have grown to 10.4 million Americans. And of course, Texas is one of the worst-hit states in the nation. While 1 in 10 working families lives below the poverty line nationally, in Texas, 1 in 7 working families still lives below the poverty line.
So how is it that so many hardworking families can't make it above the poverty line? There are lots of factors that determine what kind of employment a person can get, including race, gender, and educational achievement. And now, a new study suggests that there may be another institutional factor: unionization. A study published in the August issue of the American Sociological Review found that states with more unions had fewer working poor. Unionization significantly lowered working poverty among both union members and non-members. In fact, the effects of unionization on working poverty were so large that they outweighed a state's social policy and even its economic performance.
Texas is one of several states that calls itself a “right to work” state. Though “right to work” sounds like a good thing, the moniker is misleading. “Right to work” really means “right not to have to be a member of a union.” What these types of laws essentially do is “allow workers to skip paying union dues but still receive the benefits of union-negotiated contracts.” This creates free riders, and undermines unions' by taking away workers' incentive to join. Unions lose members and financial resources, weakening their ability to advocate for workers.
Anti-union advocates like to claim that they are standing up for workers, saving them from being forced into unions. But it should come as no surprise that most of these so-called advocates are backed by right-wing billionaires. As Mother Jones reported in 2011, anti-union laws have been promoted in several states by state-level right-wing think tanks (founded by the creators of the Heritage foundation) who cozy up to GOP politicians to get anti-worker laws passed.
Business people try to deflect criticism of their practices by arguing that right to work laws ultimately help workers, by increasing job growth and employment. But Texas is a perfect example of how busting unions hasn't actually made people better off.
Yes, it's true that Texas has seen job growth over the past decade. But it hasn't been the miracle Rick Perry likes to say it is. Texas has seen corresponding population growth, and more people has meant more jobs. However, the level of job growth we've seen hasn't been proportional to the increases in our population. Thus, it seems like much of Texas' job growth has simply been due to more people, and not some sort of Rick-Perry miracle.
Moreover, most of the jobs that Texas has added have been low wage jobs. Texans make less money than the rest of the nation. The median annual household income and the median hourly wage in Texas are both significantly lower than the national average. Wage growth in Texas has severely lagged behind the rest of the nation, and that has left Texans worse off. We have the most people without health insurance, higher rates of food insecurity, and more people living in poverty than the national average. Our abundance of low-wage jobs may be due to a lower cost of living, but it's clear that Texans have had to accept a lower standard of living as well.
This brings us back to unions and working poverty. Texas union membership is significantly lower than the national average, and always has been. Our median hourly wage is much lower than pro-union blue states, and they have health insurance to boot. This aligns with the findings of the August study in the American Sociological Review. As an institution, unions empower workers through collective bargaining, giving them a voice against more powerful interests. The study confirms for us that when workers are given a voice, they use it. They're able to push for higher wages and benefits, and raise the standard of living for union members and non-unionmembers alike.
Unions aren't a panacea for all the problems Texas faces, but they are certainly a good thing. Decades of Republican leadership have weakened Texas unions–it's yet another way the GOP has left Texans worse off.