Analysis Politics

Want White Working Class Voters to Support Democrats? Strengthen Unions.

Peter Dreier

Unions are critical to mobilizing even white working class voters for a progressive agenda. Democrats need to do more to strengthen them.

One of the most frequently cited reasons for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was his support among white working-class voters. He appealed to this group by playing on racist fears about immigrants and people of color and on “God and guns” opposition to gun control and abortion. Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly stoked the anger of a “base” that blames people of color, immigrants, Muslims, feminists, gays, and lesbians for economic insecurity and an array of demographic and social changes they fear. In the process, Trump and his followers have at once endangered whole communities of people, reignited debates about the role of race and class, and made the majority of Americans ask: What kind of country is this and who will have a voice in its future?

Racism and xenophobia were not the motivating forces of all those who voted for Trump in 2016. As Sarah Smarsh wrote in a recent New York Times commentary, “most struggling whites I know here live a life of quiet desperation, mad at their white bosses, not resentful toward their co-workers or neighbors of color.” And, she continued, “Media coverage suggests that economically distressed whiteness elected Mr. Trump,” she reports, “when in fact it was just plain whiteness.” Smarsh is right: 48 percent of white college graduates who voted in 2016 voted for Trump, compared to the 45 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Some liberal pundits argue that a coalition of people of color and highly educated whites is sufficient to sustain a progressive majority in future elections. But these arguments ignore critical demographic realities: White working class Americans still comprise a large segment of voters in most states and in many Congressional and state legislative districts. In 2017, there were nearly 217 million Americans 25 years and older, according to the Census Bureau. Among them, 120 million lack a college degree, which is often used as a proxy for working class. By that definition, non-Hispanic white people represent nearly 60 percent (72 million) of the nation’s working class. Democrats ignore them at their peril.

They also seem to ignore a critical factor in recent elections: The declining power of labor unions to mobilize voters, including white working class voters, in support of progressive candidates and policies. The newly engaged struggle for stronger labor laws and a stronger labor movement is a struggle for the future of our country, one all liberals and progressives should make a priority in future elections, legislative lobbying, and protest demands..

A Rightward Shift

The white working-class has been shifting rightward for some time, at least in terms of voting for Republicans. In 2008, for example, 58 percent of non-college whites who voted supported John McCain. In 2012, 61 percent of that same group voted for Mitt Romney. In 2016, however, two-thirds (66 percent) of white voters without a college degree backed Trump, the largest margin for a Republican presidential candidate since 1980. Only 29 percent of white working class voters backed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

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Based on data from surveys and in-depth focus groups, Guy Molyneux of Hart Research Associates estimates that more than one-third of white working class voters are neither hard-core conservatives nor fervent liberals, but middle-of-the-road moderates. They represent, according to Molyneux, about 15 percent of the total electorate, or approximately 23 million registered voters. There is plenty of evidence that white working class Americans are increasingly frightened, frustrated, and angry about their economic condition and that of their families and communities. The question is how will they channel those feelings? Do they scapegoat immigrants, people of color, foreign countries, and “big government,” and try to turn back the clock on the victories of the civil rights, women’s, LBGT, and environmental movements? Or do they focus on the corporate titans who are primarily responsible for stagnating wages and rising costs, who use their political clout to promote policies that support big business and the super-rich, and who make it more difficult for working families not only to make ends meet but to thrive?

And given GOP policies favoring the rich, why has this group increasingly voted Republican?

Over the past several decades, the relative power of organized efforts to drive these white voters to the polls have changed dramatically. Conservative media such as Fox News and its radio talk show counterparts influence how viewers and listeners think about political issues while organizations devoted to driving conservative policy—particularly evangelical Christian groups, gun rights groups, and networks of local conservative activists funded by the Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires—have invested heavily in mobilizing white working class voters.

For example, in 2016, 80 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for Trump, accounting for almost half of his 63 million votes. The religious right drove white evangelical voters to the polls by organizing a vibrant, focused, and expensive but relatively invisible (to the media) grassroots campaign.

The Decades-long Attack on Unions

Meanwhile, labor unions—the organizations that in the past were most effective at mobilizing low-income and working-class voters (including white workers) around their economic interests—have been under attack and in steady decline since the 1970s, contributing to a decline in membership and political clout.

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, giving workers the right to unionize. The law led to a huge upsurge of union organizing during the Depression and after World War II and helped propel tens of millions of workers into the middle class. Unions flourished. And the labor movement became the major engine of Democratic Party turnout. Unions educated their members (and members’ families) about issues and candidates, recruited members to work as campaign volunteers, and mobilized them to vote and to get other working class Americans to the polls. Even today, union members are more likely to participate in election campaigns, more likely to vote, and more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Americans who are not in unions.

Fearing an expansion of New Deal policies, in 1947 business lobby groups successfully persuaded the Republican Congress to pass the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of President Harry Truman, who described it as a “clear threat to the successful working of our democratic society.” Labor leaders denounced it as a “slave-labor bill.” It restricted workers’ rights to strike, picket, and boycott, and it permitted states to enact “right-to-work” laws that allow workers to enjoy the benefits of unionized workplaces without paying dues. It has been used ever since by business groups to strangle union organizing drives, reduce union membership, and diminish unions’ political clout. Today, America’s labor laws are stacked against workers, making it extremely difficult for even the most committed workers and talented organizers to win union elections.

As a result, union membership, which peaked in 1954 at 34.8 percent of all wage and salary workers, is now less than 11 percent. Public employees have become labor’s salvation, accounting for almost half of all union members. More than one-third of government employees belong to unions, compared with a dismal 6.5 percent of private-sector workers. And this has affected the outcome of elections.

Education, Mobilization, Voting 

Since 1996, the AFL-CIO has conducted surveys of union members to understand how they vote compared with their non-union counterparts. Their data show that when voters’ loyalties are divided between their economic interests and other concerns, union membership is a crucial determinant of how Americans vote. It is a cliché to say that Republicans appeal to white working-class voters by focusing on “guns and God.” But when unions are part of the equation, that formula doesn’t work so well.

In the 2008 presidential election, for example, 67 percent of union members (69 percent in swing states) supported Obama over Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Senator John McCain, according to that year’s AFL-CIO survey. What’s most impressive is the influence that unions had in persuading and mobilizing white members—particularly white working class members—to vote for Obama. In that election, only 40 percent of white non-college graduates voted for Obama, but 60 percent of white union members who did not graduate from college did so.

Similarly, 41 percent of white men favored Obama, but 57 percent of white male union members voted for Obama. Overall, 47 percent of white women cast ballots for Obama, but a whopping 72 percent of white women union members voted for him.

Only 32 percent of white gun owners cast their votes for Obama, but 54 percent of white gun owners who were also union members preferred Obama. Among white weekly churchgoers, McCain scored a landslide, receiving 70 percent of their votes compared with 30 percent for Obama. But Obama had a slight edge (49 percent to 48 percent) among white weekly churchgoers who belonged to unions.

Yes, white union members helped elect America’s first Black president.

Union membership alone did not determine how white steelworkers, auto workers, miners, retail clerks, machinists, warehouse and dock workers, secretaries, bus and truck drivers, janitors, day care employees, nurses, teachers, social workers, and other blue-, pink- and white-collar employees voted. Unions poured significant resources into educating members about the choice between Obama and McCain, and invested heavily in get-out-the-vote efforts.

Unions made a special effort to talk with white members who may have been reluctant to vote for a Black man for president. During the 2008 campaign, Richard Trumka, then the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer (now its president), crisscrossed the country speaking to union members in key battleground states, appealing to their class solidarity, decency, and sense of history.

“We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there—a lot of them are good union people—who just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man,” he said in a speech to the national convention of the United Steelworkers union in July 2008.

“Here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us, and you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin?” Trumka declared. “Are you out of your ever-loving mind?”

Unions have a responsibility to fight for all working families, Trumka reminded the audience, “because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people.”

There are many reasons for union members to vote for Obama, Trumka added, but “only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that’s because he’s not white.”

Trumka repeated that impassioned speech, which was widely circulated via YouTube, at union gatherings around the country. Other labor leaders and rank-and-file activists carried Trumka’s message to union voters, who responded by overwhelmingly voting for Obama.

The unions’ efforts weren’t designed to eradicate all traces of white workers’ prejudices and stereotypes. Nor were they intended to directly challenge their attitudes about issues such as gun control and gay rights, although different unions have embraced gun control and laws banning LGBT discrimination. It was, instead, an appeal based on a combination of self-interest, class solidarity, the common good, and the lessons of history.

A similar dynamic was a work four years later, when Obama squared off against Romney. For example, Obama didn’t expect to get many votes among white evangelicals, but union membership made a difference in how these religious Christians voted. Obama won the votes of 35 percent of white evangelicals who were also union members, but only 16 percent of white evangelicals who had no union affiliation.

By 2016, however, the labor movement had sunk to membership levels lower than at any time since the early 1900s. Its capacity to mobilize and educate was never weaker. Even so, the AFL-CIO survey found that 56 percent of union members voted for Clinton compared with 37 percent for Trump. That 19-point margin is smaller than in most previous years, though still significant.

Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans now comprise roughly one-third of all union members, accounting for much of the support for Clinton among unionists. How well did unions do in getting their white members—college grads and non-grads alike— to vote for the Democrats’ presidential candidate? We don’t know, because the AFL-CIO has not released that portion of its survey. It’s fair to ask whether union leaders were embarrassed by the relatively tepid support of their white members for Clinton.

In 2016, Weaker Unions Meant Greater Losses in the Midwest

Trump owes his victory to narrow margins in three states that were once union strongholds. Out of 136 million votes cast, Clinton had three million more votes. Had she won 77,000 more votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, she would have won an Electoral College majority and the presidency. In Wisconsin, for example, Trump beat Clinton by a mere 22,748 votes out of more than 2.9 million votes cast. Statewide, Trump received about the same number of voters as Mitt Romney in 2012, but Clinton received almost 240,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012.

The statewide decline in voter turnout was particularly devastating in Democratic strongholds. In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature adopted stringent voter-registration laws, including a requirement that voters provide a photo ID to vote. This had a particularly chilling effect in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, which has a large Black and low-income population. According to Neil Albrecht, the Milwaukee Election Commission’s executive director, voter turnout in that city declined by 41,000 people between 2012 and 2016, with most of the drop-off coming in high-poverty districts. Clinton barely campaigned in Wisconsin, because her advisors mistakenly assumed that it would be a slam-dunk win. The Clinton campaign also failed to invest sufficient resources in those areas, while the labor movement—once the bulwark of Democratic victories—lacked the capacity to invest people and money to increase turnout among Wisconsin’s working class and minority voters.

Union membership has declined dramatically since the 1960s in all three states, including significant falloffs since 2008. In Wisconsin, for example, union members made up roughly 33 percent of the workforce in 1968, falling to 15 percent in 2008 and plunging further to 8 percent in 2016. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, union membership as a share of the workforce fell from 19 percent and 15.5 percent in 2008, respectively, to 14 and 12 percent in 2016. Had unions been stronger in Wisconsin as well as in Pennsylvania and Michigan, they not only would have increased turnout and support for Clinton among white and minority union members but also would have boosted turnout among nonunion minority voters by targeting media, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote resources among that group. 

Although union membership has shrunk, organized labor, with 15 million members nationwide, remains the most potent liberal force in U.S. politics. While business groups typically outspend unions by more than a 15-to-1 margin when it comes to campaign contributions, organized labor has the largest war chest among key Democratic constituency groups. Ironically, Republican leaders seem to be more aware of unions’ political importance than many liberals and progressives.

In 2001, Republican strategist and corporate lobbyist Grover Norquist penned an article in the right-wing American Spectator that outlined a strategy to create a permanent conservative Republican majority. His goal was, and still is, to relegate the Democratic Party to minority status.

At the top of Norquist’s list was a plan to undermine the labor movement as a bulwark of the Democratic Party. To break public-sector unions, he encouraged Republican-controlled states to back “privatization” schemes, such as private charter schools and outsourcing major government functions to for-profit companies. He called on Republican governors and state legislators to adopt “right-to-work” laws that would make it harder for unions to organize and represent workers.

Republicans have followed Norquist’s advice. Twenty-eight states (including one-time labor strongholds Michigan and Wisconsin) have adopted so-called right-to-work legislation that says workers can’t be required to join labor unions or pay union dues, even if the majority of their fellow workers vote for a union voice in their workplace. (Last Tuesday, Missourians voted by a 62-38 percent margin in a statewide referendum to overturn the state’s right-to-work-law). A Republican-backed national right-to-work bill is now pending in Congress.

For years, Republican political and legal strategists laid the groundwork to challenge union power through the courts. The case they selected—Janus v. AFSCME, which originated in Illinois—reached the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year. In June, the Republican-majority court ruled by a 5-4 vote that public sector workers can’t be forced (through checkoffs from their weekly or monthly pay) to contribute fees to unions they don’t want to join even though they benefit from the contracts negotiated on their behalf.

Those public-sector unions—including American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and teachers’ unions—now expect to lose a significant part of their revenue. This will limit labor’s capacity to mobilize and fund campaigns around progressive causes, such as paid sick leave, higher minimum wage laws, enforcement of workplace safety laws, health insurance, more funding for public education, and electing pro-worker candidates to public office. For example, SEIU—which has nearly two million members, half of them public sector workers, and which was the key funder behind the Fight for $15 campaign to organize, unionize, and raise the wages of fast-food workers and other private sector low-wage employees—cut its budget by 30 percent in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Labor activists worry that the Janus decision could now encourage business lobby groups to challenge mandatory fees in private sector unions too.

Public Support for Unions Is On The Rise

Why has union membership declined so precipitously in the past half-century? Many manufacturing companies have shut down their unionized workplaces (such as auto plants and steel mills), moved them to anti-union Southern states, or exported those jobs overseas. Over the past decade, the labor movement failed to invest resources in organizing workers in the burgeoning service industries (including large retail giants like Walmart, hospitals and nursing homes, and universities). But business leaders argue that the decline is due primarily to employees’ attitudes. Americans, they argue, are individualistic and believe that they can improve their standard of living on their own by hard work.

In fact, the opposite is true: Support for unions is growing. Gallup has been tracking attitudes toward unions since 1937. In the mid-1950s, 75 percent of Americans said they approved of unions. That support steadily declined, reaching an all-time low of 48 percent in 2009. Since then, however, support for unions has steadily climbed, reaching 61 percent last year. And young people have a much more positive view of unions than older generations. A new Pew Research Center survey discovered that 68 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 have a favorable view of unions. A new study by researchers at MIT found that among wage and salary (non-management) employees, “the desire to join a union has increased substantially in recent decades.” They discovered that “if all of the nonunion workers who have a desire to join a union had the opportunity do so, union membership could increase by approximately 55 million workers, essentially quadrupling the number currently represented by a union.”

Telling a pollster that you support unions in general, however, doesn’t mean that you’ll participate openly in an organizing drive at your workplace, especially if doing so means you could lose your job.

Elections held under current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules put workers and their unions at a disadvantage. Big business spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to hire anti-union consultants who use elaborate strategies to keep unions out. Employers in the United States can require workers to attend meetings on work time, where company managers and consultants give anti-union speeches, show anti-union films, and distribute anti-union literature. Unions have no equivalent rights of access to employees. To reach them, organizers must visit their homes or hold secret meetings. This is hardly workplace democracy.

Any employer with a clever attorney can stall union elections, giving management time to scare the living daylights out of potential recruits. According to the most recent study from the early 2000s by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, one-third of all employers illegally fire at least one employee during union organizing campaigns under NLRB supervision. The lucky workers get reinstated years later after exhaustive court battles. Indeed, penalties for these violations are so minimal that most employers treat them as a minor cost of doing business. Employees who initially signed union cards are often long gone or too afraid to vote by the time the NLRB conducts an election.

Since Taft-Hartley was passed in 1947, unions and their allies have tried unsuccessfully several times to restore workers’ rights. During his 2008 campaign, for example, Obama pledged to support the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have allowed employees to form unions if a majority signed a card stating that they desire union representation. (Canada uses a “card check” process, and union membership there is more than twice the rate in the United States). EFCA would also have increased penalties for companies that violate worker rights.

In July 2009, 41 Senate Democrats cosponsored the EFCA bill. But Obama, consumed by the mortgage meltdown, the economic crisis, and his desire to make health care reform a top priority, put EFCA on the back burner. A massive lobbying and propaganda effort by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups intimidated enough Democrats—including current Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Tom Carper of Delaware—to oppose the bill so that EFCA had no chance to pass. Labor law reform quickly disappeared from the Democrats’ priority list.

Since then, Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for $15, burgeoning organizing efforts among janitors, nurses, Walmart and McDonald workers, and other low-wage employees, as well as the recent upsurge of strikes by teachers in red states have put the issues of income inequality, low-wage jobs, and workers’ rights back on the nation’s agenda.

The Workplace Democracy Act

Earlier this year, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ),  Kamala Harris (D-CA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) unveiled the next iteration of labor law reform called the Workplace Democracy Act. It would eliminate several of the major barriers to union organizing. It would ban state-level right-to-work laws. It includes a “card check” provision that guarantees workers the right to form a union after a majority in a workplace sign cards saying they want union representation. The bill would also legalize secondary boycotts—banned by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act—so unions can put pressure on an employer’s clients to bring management to the negotiating table.

Obviously, no version of the Workplace Democracy Act is going to pass with a Republican Congress and Trump in the White House, but unions and their progressive allies hope that Democrats, including those who run for president in 2020, will recognize that reviving the labor movement is good for their party and for the country and make the bill a priority. If it passed, the United States would come closer to matching other democracies in protecting worker rights and make it more likely for workers to win union organizing drives. It would mean a stronger labor movement, better wages, benefits, and working conditions for all employees, and an increase in income equality.

It would also mean greater capacity to elect liberal and progressive candidates at the local, state, and federal levels. Once in office, pro-union politicians are typically the strongest advocates of full employment, progressive taxes, strong environment laws, funding for public schools and higher education, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, universal health insurance, affordable housing, and protection of Social Security.

The battle for the Workplace Democracy Act will also be a battle for democracy itself. Business leaders, the gun lobby, the religious right, and their Republican allies in Congress and in states understand that a resuscitated labor movement would be an effective counterweight to their political influence. Stronger unions will bolster the capacity to address the low turnout of low-income and minority voters as well as renew the loyalty of more white working class voters for policies and politicians that promote solidarity rather than divide-and-conquer racism and nativism.

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