Harvest of struggle: Tracking inequality through first contract gains for low-wage workers

Project Summary:

This project will quantify the gains that low-wage workers make via union membership, not only in terms of wages but also benefits, health and safety protections, grievance procedures, training, and work flexibility and regularity. Utilizing a database of first contracts gained under collective bargaining agreements, the researcher seeks to provide a broader view of unionization’s benefits which fully captures the human capital implications. In addition, this project focuses on women, workers of color, and low-wage workers, which the vast majority of the contemporary research on unions and labor market outcomes does not capture. Low-wage workers are disproportionately at the bottom of the income scale, and account for a significant share of the growth in income inequality. Understanding the diverse consequences of organizing and collective bargaining may provide insights into how and why inequality has grown.


Kate Bronfenbrenner is the Director of Labor Education Research and a Senior Lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she does teaching and research on union and employer strategies in organizing and bargaining in the global economy. Bronfenbrenner has also done extensive research on the impact of trade policy on employment, wages, and unionization. Prior to joining the Cornell faculty in 1993, Bronfenbrenner was an assistant professor in labor studies at Penn State University and worked for many years as an organizer and union representative.

Bronfenbrenner, who received her Ph.D. from Cornell, is the co-author and editor of several books on union strategies including “Global Unions: Challenging Transnational Capital Through Cross Border Campaigns,” “Union Organizing in the Public Sector: An Analysis of State and Local Elections,” “Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies,” and “Ravenswood: The Steelworkers' Victory and the Revival of American Labor.” She has also published numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs on labor policy, employer and union behavior in public- and private-sector organizing and first contract campaigns, comprehensive campaigns, union leadership development, women and unions, and global trade and investment policy. Her study “Election timing, employer freed speech, and unfair labor practice occurrence: whose rights are at risk?” played a central role in informing the NLRB's recent election streamlining rule changes.