A new study out today from the Center for American Progress Action Fund reveals that one of the constants of American electoral politics is still constant: Union voters still vote more Democratic than their non-union counterparts. Despite Democratic hand-wringing over the flight of working-class men to Republican ranks, an in-depth study of the 2020 presidential vote by Aurelia Glass, David Madland, and Ruy Teixeira reveals that unions were indeed an electoral bulwark against the much-feared drift toward Trump.
Some journalists have studied union members votes through many electionsin my case, since the mid-1980sto produce quick morning-after snapshots, relying on exit polls that are more accurate than the proverbial blind mens descriptions of elephants, but sometimes not by much. The CAP study, by contrast, is based on two complementary gold standards of voting measurement: the 2020 Cooperative Election Study, whose sample is so large it permits an accurate measure of voter subgroups, and the American National Election Studies academic survey, from 2008 through 2020. The authors were also able to exclude non-employees from their study, and were thereby able to measure the difference between union and non-union workers more precisely than exit polls customarily do.
Heres some of what they found:
Just a glance at these numbers makes clear the toll that 70 years of declining union strength has taken on the Democrats electoral prospects. If the unionized workforce constituted 20 percent of the overall U.S. workforce, as it did 40 years agolet alone the 35 percent it did in the middle of the last centuryDemocrats would be winning elections by far larger margins.
Though Democrats have held filibuster-proof majorities in the 60s, 70s, 90s, and the first two years of Barack Obamas presidency, there have always been a handful of Democratic senators who withheld their support from legislation that would have reformed labor law, so that workers would be more free to join unions again. Democrats, of course, hold no such Senate majority today, but even if they did, or if they reformed the filibuster to end majority rule, there are still senatorsArizonas Kyrsten Sinema and Virginias Mark Warner, to name just twowho wouldnt be sure things, were such a bill (like the current PRO Act) to be put to a vote in the Senate.
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Conversely, these numbers solve the mystery, if there was one, of why no Republicans can be found to support restoring the right of private-sector workers to join unions, or why Republican state governments in such historic union strongholds as Wisconsin and Michigan passed right-to-work laws over the past decade. Though unions now have an approval rating of 68 percent (the highest its been since 1965), and though their eclipse is one significant reason why economic inequality has soared in recent decades, even presumably enlightened corporate executives (Starbuckss Howard Schultz most recently) oppose them with an almost pathological zeal. That has a political rationale as well; the party that traditionally protects big business with low taxes and deregulation would do poorly in a more heavily unionized country.
As Democrats ponder how to win more support among white and Hispanic working-class voters in particular, the ability of unions to produce more Democratic voters in those groups shows that the appeals of white supremacy and the war on wokeness can be countered in part by the kind of clear economic messaging that unions deliver. Plainly, Democrats themselves cant deliver such messages as credibly as unions do. When unions speak to members through shop stewards and through friends at the worksite, the message isnt being delivered by a Democratic establishment that some see as culturally alien and disrespectful. Its being delivered by ones peers.
Such messengers are needed now more than ever. The exit polls that I wrote about in the 1980s showed a substantially wider gap between working-class white union members and nonmembers than the six-point margin that divided them in 2020. That, though, was before the decades of economic stagnation and abandonment that befell this group of voters, before they fell prey to deaths of despair and right-wing media (Limbaugh, Fox, social). Democrats cant do much about that right-wing media, but, as the Biden administration is the first since Harry Trumans to realize, they had better do their damnedest to bolster unions any way they can.