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Union Advantage Grows

The already substantial union advantage for employee benefits has increased in recent years, according to new survey data. Unions have been able to preserve the most important benefits for their members, while nonunion workers have not been able to withstand the huge employer push to cut coverage and shift costs on to employees. Union workers are far more likely to be covered by health care and retirement benefits than nonunion workers and far less likely to be forced to contribute to the cost of those plans.

The new data are now available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' November 9 release of the results of its March 2004 survey of employee benefits in the private sector, the largest survey of its kind. The survey covers 4,703 establishments representing 102.3 million workers. Findings from the survey include the following:

• Almost all union workers - 89 percent - have access to employer-provided medical benefits, compared with 67 percent of nonunion workers. Seventy-three percent of union workers have dental care coverage, compared with 43 percent of nonunion workers. For vision care, 56 percent of union workers receive benefits; only 26 percent of nonunion workers are covered.

• The advantages of union membership also show in whether or not employees must pay for part of their health care benefits. For single coverage, the employer pays all costs for 43 percent of union workers, but only 21 percent of nonunion workers receive employer-paid coverage.

• For family coverage, 33 percent of all union workers are not required to contribute, but only 7 percent of nonunion workers receive coverage that is fully paid by the employer.

• When union members are required to contribute toward their health care coverage, they pay far less than nonunion workers. The average flat contribution for single coverage for union members is $56.53 a month, or $678.36 per year, compared with $68.98 per month, or $827.76 per year for nonunion workers.

• For family coverage, union members contribute an average of $195.12 a month, or $2,341.44 a year, compared with $273.51 a month, or $3,282.12 per year, for nonunion workers.

• Nonunion workers face much higher costs for medical coverage than they did only a few years ago. The average annual nonunion employee contribution for family coverage is $1,052.64 more today than it was in 2000.

• Overall, employers pay 83 percent of the cost of health care benefits for family coverage for union workers, but only 67 percent of the costs for nonunion workers.

• Fifty-nine percent of workers have access to retirement benefits, with 50 percent participating in at least one type of retirement plan. The vast majority of these workers are covered only by a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), and the data do not reveal the size of the retirement accounts for these workers.

• Only 21 percent of all workers are covered by defined benefit retirement plans, which are primarily traditional employer-funded pension plans with a predetermined retirement benefit paid out for life after retirement. Only 10 percent of all private sector establishments still offer these plans. This benefit is now really a union benefit, with 70 percent of all union workers covered by a defined benefit plan, compared with only 16 percent of nonunion workers.

• Fifty-three percent of all workers are covered by defined contribution retirement plans, which are largely funded by the workers themselves. Among union workers, 48 percent are covered by these plans, which are often offered in addition to pension plans at union workplaces.

• The union advantage extends well beyond health and retirement benefits. Union workers are more likely to receive employer-provided life insurance and twice as likely to have short-term disability coverage.

• Union workers are also more likely to receive paid time-off benefits and greater amounts of paid time-off. For example, union workers with 20 years of service receive an average of 22.3 paid vacation days, compared with 18.1 days for nonunion workers.

Unions have also been able to maintain larger wage increases for their members, with annual wage cost increases averaging 3.0 percent for union workers and 2.5 percent for nonunion workers from September 2003 to September 2004. Largely because of the rising cost of benefits, total compensation costs for union workers rose 5.8 percent, compared with 3.4 percent for nonunion workers. This growing differential in union and nonunion costs will fuel greater employer opposition to organizing drives going forward.


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