After decades of declining unionization rates and rising income inequality in the United States, the past few years have seen glimmers of the vibrancy of the U.S. labor movement in the late 19th century and early 20th century, fighting back against both corporate exploitation and shortcomings in the enforcement of labor laws and protections. In addition to boosting wages, leading to narrower income and wage divides, helping workers access income supports, and even fostering interracial solidarity, labor unions are one of government enforcement agencies’ most effective partners in fostering compliance with labor standards.

In short, unions today can be effective partners in ensuring government institutions protect workers and, in turn, foster equitable economic growth. Unions inform members and workers in general about the rights and protections they are entitled to by law, establish mechanisms to voice grievances with less risk of retaliation, and even help shape legislation.

But in order to be even more effective stewards of workers’ rights and protections, unions also need to operate in an institutional context that allows them to act as a countervailing force to the power of employers. But the decades-long decline in the union membership rates, judicial losses, and insufficient mechanisms to push back against employers’ (legal and illegal) union-busting strategies all hold back organized labor’s ability to protect workers.

Below are a few ways in which unions in the United States support the enforcement of labor standards, as well as the policies and reforms needed to ensure that they can carry out this critical role in the economy.

  • Unionized workplaces are more likely to follow health and safety standards
  • Unions protect workers against wage theft
  • Violations to labor standards contribute to inequality, but unions can push against both lack of compliance and wage disparities
  • Unions need institutional support to be effective in safeguarding labor rights

Read the full article about unions by Kate Bahn and Carmen Sanchez Cumming at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.