Duke Study Suggests That “Unions Are Better For Your Health”

Here’s a workforce health study that might raise your blood pressure: two researchers at Duke University say that their research suggests that labor unions are good for your health.

The Duke research indicates “that more unionized American workers consider themselves healthy than do their non-union counterparts,” according to David Brady, a Duke sociology professor and co-author of the study who talked to the Duke Research Blog.

The study appears in the latest issue of Social Forces, and it “examines survey results of more than 11,000 full-time workers, both union and non-union, who answered questions about their general health. The data is from the General Social Survey, a massive effort of the National Opinion Research Center providing more than three decades of data “

85% of union workers say they are in good health

The key finding, and the one that seems to be driving the notion that “unions are better for your health,” is that 85 percent of union workers reported being in good health, compared to 82 percent of non-union workers. That may not sound like much, but as the Duke Research Blog story notes, “in real numbers, that 3 percent gap represents 3.7 million American workers.”

Three percent may not seem like a lot,” said Megan Reynolds, a Duke doctoral student and lead author of the study. “But when you start looking at the number of workers in the United States, that’s a lot of people.”

(Duke Sociology professor and study co-author David) Brady and Reynolds say the difference is comparable to the physical benefits found to be associated with being married rather than divorced or being five years younger.

Union workers comprise just about 11 percent of the American workforce.

“Unions are taking a beating in American culture,” Brady said. “But here we can say that not only are unions better for your wages, they’re good for your health.”

Yes, but do union workers have better health care?

I’ve skimmed the research by Brady and Reynolds, and it is deep and impressive as research goes. But where I struggle is with the blanket conclusion that unions “are good for your health.” After all, as the researchers point out, only slightly more than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce (the BLS pegs it as 11.8 percent in 2011) is unionized. And, it wouldn’t even be that large were it not for the disproportionate skewing of public sector workers who are represented by a labor union.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 37 percent of public sector workers were unionized as of 2011, compared to just 6.9 percent in the private sector. And as we all know given the growing debate over public sector worker benefits that flow from such a high degree of union representation (see Wisconsin for more details), public sector workers get richer health care benefits pretty much across the board, including lower levels of individual contribution, lower (or no) co-pays, and in some cases, little or no employee contribution to health care at all.

That means, at least in my analysis, that these highly unionized public sector workers are likely to consume more health care. They are likely to opt to go see the doctor at the first sign of sniffle or sore throat, while their non-unionized public sector counterparts (who make up the overwhelming majority of workers in this country) are probably more likely to wait to save their money and wait to see the doctor until they really need it.

Yes, my take would be that it’s not surprising that more unionized workers report that they are in good health compared to their non-unionized breatheren. That’s to be expected when you have a better health plan and little to no out of pocket costs. You use it more and see the doctor more because there is little to no cost out of your pocket for doing so. That one reason why health care is so costly in America these days — some people who pay very little (or nothing) for it use too much of it because they don’t pay any part of the bill.

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Reasons for skepticism

Is this a factor that the Duke researchers have failed to account for as they tout that “unions are better for their health?”

Maybe. In a section in the study titled “Reasons for Skepticism,” authors Brady and Reynolds note:

Before making the case for an effect of labor unions on health, it is worthwhile to question whether such an effect exists. Unionization is not distributed evenly and the unionized are not a representative sample of workers. The nature of highly unionized jobs (e.g., in the manufacturing or public sector) or the individual characteristics (e.g., human capital) associated with those jobs, rather than union membership itself, may be what influences health. Thus, if we find that union membership significantly benefits health, it could be because more healthy workers or those with healthier jobs select into unions. Any remaining effect of union membership could easily be overshadowed by the myriad social, psychological and behavioral factors that shape health. Thus, unionized workers could have better or even worse health for reasons unrelated to or despite union membership.”

I’d also throw in one more caveat: unionized public sector workers have been largely sheltered by the huge increases in health care costs since their public sector employer (again, that’s where most unionized U.S. workers are) is not particularly worried about the bottom line impact of such increases as private sector employers are.

Yes, some public sector workers have been asked to pay more for their health care, but their unions are fighting this everywhere. In the private sector, employees were simply hit with higher health care costs as the recession and the ever-rising cost of health care zoomed upward. That had to depress health care usage among non-unionized private sector workers, and I would be surprised if that didn’t manifest itself in those workers reporting they felt “less healthy.”

So, take this study with a grain of salt. You may see it differently and your mileage may vary. I don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that “unions are better for your health” after looking at this survey, as the authors do, but you should take a good read (you’ll find it here) and decide for yourself.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


4 Comments on “Duke Study Suggests That “Unions Are Better For Your Health”

  1. I agree with John.  Union workers have better health benefits as well as pension benefits.

    Increasingly union members work in the public sector.  Benefits in that sector have become a political issue. 

    The cutbacks by companies over the last decade or more contribute to the Duke findings.  Public employers look like they will be forced to make comparable cuts so this difference may not be as evident a few years from now.

  2. If there’s a widespread trend of union workers getting better healthcare due to their union membership, then unions are better for your health. If non-unionized workers are sucking it up and tolerating health problems because they can’t afford to go to the doctor until they’re so sick that they’re physically unable to show up to work, then unions are better for your health. You’re not saying the survey is wrong, you’re actually backing it up by providing some of the reasons that the survey is right. Other reasons might include better working conditions, more breaks and less overtime, better safety regulations, and possibly even lower stress.

  3. As an author of the study, I thought it worthwhile to respond to some of
    the points raised in this article. Our reasons for skepticism mainly describe why we might expect to find that union members
    have worse health than non-union members, not better health. More to the point, we then use statistical techniques
    that account for factors that might make it look like there is a
    relationship when there isn’t. We obtain our results in spite of,
    not because of, these factors. Additionally, we do conduct some analysis on
    the role of health insurance and find that the union effect remains
    even after we account for higher health care coverage rates among union members. Most importantly (as one of the comments echoes), the crux of our argument is that even if unions do affect
    health via some intermediary factor like health insurance, the root cause is the union itself.
    Of course, none of this is to say that the study is flawless; only that
    the results do hold up against some of the specific criticisms offered.
    Thanks for your interest in (and feedback on) our research!

  4. Beyond health insurance benefits, union workers are not at the mercy of the whims of management to change working conditions without any notice.  Non-union workers have the stress of being on their own when it comes to dealing with management and have absolutey no job/workplace protections.   My prediction is that workers who study after study has shown are disengaged and desiring to move from where they are at — will wake-up to the fact that only by joining forces in an organized, protected way will they be able to have any power in the workplace.

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