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Organized Labor's Check on Rising Economic Inequality in the U.S. States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 January 2021

Laura C. Bucci*
University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Laura C. Bucci, University of Pittsburgh, 4600 Wesley Posvar Hall, 230 S. Bouquet Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA. Email:


Recent demonstrations of growing economic inequality in the United States raise normative concerns about the political representation of all but the very wealthiest citizens. Building on existing cross-national work on the roles of unions in welfare states, I provide evidence that organized labor, as a political institution, limits unequal income distributions in the U.S. states. The states are useful to our understanding of labor's influence on inequality as states differ in their acceptance of labor unions, base levels of inequality, political preferences, industries, and levels of development but are all nested within a single overarching national framework. Over the 39-year period examined, states where unions maintain more members remain more equal within the labor market and after redistribution via government transfer. These effects persist after accounting for state-level policy, demography, and economic conditions. However, states where union membership has the largest influence on inequality have also seen growing attempts to reduce unionization rates. Overall, I find that unions are still able to limit the growth of economic inequality in spite of declining levels of union membership.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s) 2018

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