TWO recently issued -- and generally ignored -- government reports make clear that despite the severe battering unions have suffered, they remain very important to a lot of people in a lot of places. Unions, it's often said, have become irrelevant and ineffective. Workers can do just as well without them.
But as the reports from the Labor and Commerce Departments show, union members still earn considerably more than nonunion workers. They show, too, that in those parts of the country where unions are the strongest, union and nonunion workers alike earn much more than workers elsewhere.
According to reports, the average weekly pay of unionized workers nationwide was one-third higher in 1985 than nonunion workers. The average for the unionized workers was $419 a week. For nonunion workers it was $315.
Unionized workers have always been paid better. But their advantage has been growing, despite the steady decline in the number of union members, despite the granting of pay cuts and other concessions by unions and despite the defensive position of organized labor.
The average weekly pay of unionized workers in 1980 -- $320 -- was $42 higher than that of nonunion workers, compared with the unionized workers' much greater advantage of $104 a week last year. The average was up $17 from 1984. And though that didn't do much more than keep pace with the rate of inflation, neither did the increase of $13 in the average for nonunion workers.
What those weekly figures meant, in any case, was that unionized workers got an average of $5,408 more than other working people last year.
Unionized women and minority workers didn't make as much, on the average, as white males who belonged to unions, and the average pay of minorities actually declined slightly from 1984. But they still did much better than women and minority workers outside unions.
The average pay of black union members was $348 a week -- $101 more than it was for other black workers. The difference was $107 for Hispanics -- $338 a week for those in unions, $231 for others. Women workers, white and minority, continued to lag behind men, but they moved forward rapidly. The average pay of unionized women rose a full $55 a week between 1984 and last year, to $356. That's $89 more than the weekly average for women who weren't unionized.
As the reports also show, workers in all categories did much better in the states that permit labor and management to agree to union shop contracts that require all employees covered by the contracts to join the unions that negotiated them.
That seems fair enough. For unions negotiating contracts of any kind must represent and provide services to all those covered by the contracts -- members and nonmembers as well -- and see to it that whatever they win in their contracts is granted to all.
Twenty states have nevertheless enacted those misleadingly named ``right-to-work'' laws that prohibit negotiation of such contracts and thus guarantee that unions in those states will be the weakest.
Per capita income, the government reported, averaged $11,692 in the 20 right-to-work states in 1984, the most recent year measured. The national average was $12,789. It was $13,356 in the states that don't have right-to-work laws.
Money isn't everything, true. But that's quite a difference -- nearly $1,700 more a year paid to workers in states where the union shop is legal than paid to those in states where it is not legal.
The figures, of course, do not include fringe benefits. These are invariably greater, not only for union members, but also for all workers in areas where unions are stronger. Workers in those states are not just paid better than others. They also have more paid holidays, longer vacations, better medical care. Too, they have a greater voice in political affairs and otherwise play a more important role in their communities.
Yet the imaginative folks from the National Right to Work Committee keep telling us, in those full-page magazine ads that employer interests so eagerly pay for, that working people are as anti-union as the employers who have been lured into right-to-work states by the prospect of easily exploited employees.
But don't scoff. The right-to-work people may be right. Unions, after all, can't do anything for workers but improve their economic, political, and social standing.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco author, has covered labor as a reporter, editor, and broadcaster for a quarter-century.