2016 | Jenn Hagedorn, MPH, Claudia Alexandra Paras, Howard Greenwich, MPP, and Amy Hagopian, PhD, MHA

The UW Harry Bridges Labor Center funded a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which investigated how labor unions promote public health outcomes. Researchers analyzed 16 Washington state collective bargaining agreements to identify contract language associated with determinants of public health. These union contracts covered workers in the hospitality, transportation, home-care, construction, child-care, office, and grocery-store sectors within the Puget Sound region. Researchers supplemented the textual analysis of the contracts with interviews with union organizers and members. 

Among other findings, the researchers found union contracts advance many social determinants of health for union members and the broader community, including:

  • Establishing higher wages and benefit standards (e.g., providing retirement plans, setting working hours limits, providing health care coverage, ensuring paid time off, offering fair and predictable scheduling, etc.)

  • Protecting against workplace hazards and promoting safety awareness and training

  • Fostering democratic participation within the workplace and the broader community

Labor union contracts not only reflect rights won at the bargaining table, but often restate existing city, state, and federal laws. By restating these laws in contracts, they generate awareness of health-promoting regulations and protections to facilitate their enforcement.

Public health practitioners have not typically viewed unions as partners in promoting public health, nor have they explored contract negotiations to ensure health protections. The researchers’ findings suggest this is a missed opportunity.

An example of one such opportunity occurred in February 2020, when The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, but did not become law because it was blocked in the Senate. Public health arguments might have helped persuade policy makers of the value of advancing the right to form unions, repealing “right to work” laws, and setting penalties for companies that work to bust unions.

And given COVID-19’s impact on workers and the broader economy, this study’s findings are even more relevant. According to a January 2021 Center for Economic and Policy Research analysis, more non-union workers lost jobs during the pandemic than union workers. The heightened precarity faced by non-union workers, compared to union workers, underscores the importance of unions in ensuring workplace and community health.