Labor unions and health: A literature review of pathways and outcomes in the workplace

J. Paul Leigh, Bozhidar Chakalov

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract

Extensive economic research demonstrates correlations between unions with wages, income inequality, health insurance, discrimination, and other factors. Corresponding epidemiologic literature demonstrates correlations between income, income inequality, insurance, discrimination, and other factors with health. The first purpose of this narrative review is to link these literatures and identify 28 possible pathways whereby labor unions might affect the health of workers. This review is restricted to effects within workplaces; we do not consider unions' political activities. This review covers studies from the US, Europe, and Canada from 1980 through April 1, 2021. Pathways are grouped within five domains informed by the CDC 5-domain model of social determinants of health and the traditional 3-domain model of occupational medicine. Linked pathways include wages, inequality, excessive overtime, job satisfaction, employer-provided health insurance (EPHI), and discrimination. Second, we identify studies analyzing correlations between unions directly with health outcomes that do not require links. Outcomes include occupational injuries, sickness absence, and drug overdose deaths. Third, we offer judgments on the strength of pathways and outcomes — labeled “consensus,” “likely,” “disputed” or “unknown” — based on literature summaries. In our view, whereas there are four “consensus” pathways and outcomes and 16 “likely” pathways and outcomes for unions improving health, there are no “consensus” or “likely” pathways for harming health. The strongest “consensus” pathways and outcomes with salubrious associations include EPHI, OSHA inspections, dangerous working conditions, and injury deaths. Fourth, we identify research gaps and suggest methods for future studies. Unions are an underappreciated social determinant of health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101502
JournalPreventive Medicine Reports
Volume24
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Keywords

  • Labor economics
  • Social determinants
  • Social epidemiology
  • Trade unions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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