Unions have long been active in politics, and unions’ political influence once extended to both political parties. When labor was strong, even during periods of Republican ascendancy, elected officials could not afford to disregard union leaders’ advice when devising policy.
Take the case of W. J. Usery Jr. (pictured, center) Usery was a longtime labor activist who got his start as a cofounder of a local branch of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) in Georgia. For years he rose through the ranks of the IAM before President Richard Nixon nominated him to be assistant secretary of labor in 1969. While Nixon was no great supporter of the labor movement (and that’s our understatement of the day), he understood that labor’s assistance was essential for his legislative program. As he put it, “No program works without Labor cooperation.”
President Ford followed Nixon’s precedent, promoting Usery to secretary of labor in 1976. It would be as if a President Paul Ryan decided to tap Randi Weingarten – current head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – to be the Secretary of Education.
That, of course, is unthinkable. Today the Republican Party is united in its firm opposition to collective bargaining, with prominent officials such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley remarking openly that unions aren’t welcome. In fact, she’s gone as far as to suggest (sarcastically, one presumes) taking violent action against unions trying to organize in the Palmetto State: “You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them.”
Conservative opposition to unions is not new – as the labor activist Richard Yeselson has argued, “There is no more consistent trope of conservative ideology stretching back over a century than a nearly pathological hatred of unions.” What is rather novel is how brazenly conservative politicians across the country attack the labor movement. That simply didn’t happen on the scale and to the degree back in the mid-20th Century, when organized labor had successfully unionized over a third of all non-farm workers.
These contemporary attacks are a sign of union weakness. And union weakness has serious political consequences. Now organized labor still has a lot of money, and obviously money matters a great deal in today’s politics. But labor has never been able to compete with corporate cash when it comes to our elections. Where labor was once able to compensate was in its advantage in manpower: motivating its millions of members, friends, and family members to vote and to become engaged in the political process more generally. In so doing, the labor movement pulled many Americans otherwise unconnected to the civic sphere into politics, reducing “participatory inequality.”
What’s participatory inequality? One of the most robust findings in research on civic participation is that voting is strongly tied to education and income – more of either and you’re much more likely to show up at the polls on election day. This is a problematic relationship insofar as we as Americans care about civic participation in and of itself, and it’s also problematic in practical terms. No political party will advocate on behalf of the economic interests of the poor or working class without a constituency pressing for them to do so.
Historically, two sets of organizations helped to counter participatory inequality: unions, and churches. When it comes to fulfilling this historical mission, the problems for contemporary unions are two-fold. First, and most obviously, is the dramatic decline in the unionization rate. Second, and less obvious, is the fact that today’s labor movement is dominated by public sector workers. As I explored in a previous post, public sector workers have higher educational levels and higher income levels than average workers in the private sector. They also vote at comparatively high rates – leaving little room for union membership to boost civic participation among workers who belong to government unions. In fact, examining public sector workers in the 2008 and 2012 elections, I find that union membership has no independent effect at all on the probability of voting.
Unions’ abilities to draw Americans into the civic sphere was strongest for disadvantaged workers – specifically, workers with low levels of education employed in the private sector. My research shows that the effect of belonging to a labor union on one’s likelihood of voting is nearly three times as large for high school dropouts in the private sector compared to those with a B.A. or higher. But it is among these types of workers – low educated, private sector employees – where unionization rates have plummeted.
That leaves churches as the core set of organizations that still motivate workers with low education and income levels to participate in politics on a mass scale. And unlike unions, frequent church attendance hasn’t declined all that appreciably over the past quarter century, especially among white churchgoers. And white Evangelical churchgoers, in particular, have proven a durable electoral base for Republicans.
Excuse my stating the obvious here, but in recent decades it has been the Republican Party that has consistently blocked legislative efforts to narrow economic inequality, whether by contesting minimum wage increases, supporting tax cuts for top-end earners, or filibustering attempts to make labor organizing easier in the U.S. Thus while unions and churches stand out as the major organizations that help narrow participatory inequality, the effects of unions and many churches on economic inequality couldn’t be more different.
Union decline, then, demobilizes a segment of the electorate while shifting political power to the right: yet another consequence of the evisceration of the American labor movement.
Part of TPM Book Club For What Unions No Longer Do by Jake Rosenfeld. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. All Rights Reserved.
Jake Rosenfeld is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, co-director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest (SSN-NW), and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology (CSDE), the West Coast Poverty Center (WCPC) and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. He received his PhD in Sociology from Princeton University in 2007. For more information, please see www.jakerosenfeld.net.
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