Union erosion crumbled Hillary Clinton’s blue wall
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Democrats had good reason to believe that Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would remain a solid fixture in their "blue wall," the bulwark of states that had voted their way in the previous six elections.

The race seemed tight in Pennsylvania in early November, but national polls consistently gave Clinton the edge, and hardly anyone thought Michigan and Wisconsin were truly in play. What a difference a couple of weeks makes. The thunder of that blue wall's crash has since shocked the world.


What brought the Democrats' wall down? Much of the post-election commentary blames the white working class. Economic anxiety was key, especially among the lower middle-income voters most likely to vote for Trump. Trump lassoed their fear of falling economically to regressive views on race, gender and immigrants.

We now know that this strategy was enough to turn key states red, in part because many decent people became willing to look the other way. Almost no election analysis, however, has taken a deeper look at the structures that supported the blue wall in the first place.

Labor unions long served as the blue wall's load bearing bulwark, and their steady erosion finally allowed it to give way. It's not just that union members and their families tend to vote more Democratic. They did so again in 2016, albeit by smaller margins than for Obama.

What matters most is that we've reached a tipping point at which unions are too weak to effectively improve large numbers of workers' lives, and that void leaves working people vulnerable and angry in the face of tumultuous economic changes.

America has long had a fraught relationship with its unions. The idea of workers' collective power holds an uneasy seat within a culture that prizes an up-by-the-bootstrap mythology. Yet collective bargaining was central to the mid-twentieth century prosperity that Trump supporters idealize. Strong unions balanced corporate power and set higher wage and benefits standards not only for union members, but for much of the economy. Unions made sure that rising productivity translated into rising wages and so made sure that the economy's fruits were widely shared.

Inequality started to grow in the 1970s. That's when a more globalized and financialized economy took root, and when well-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector started to lose ground to far worse jobs in retail and service. Meanwhile, unions shrank and fewer workers benefitted from collective bargaining's equalizing effects.

Thirty years ago, nearly one in four working people in Wisconsin was a member of a union. Today, a mere eight percent have a union. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, union membership has dropped by half. Private sector union membership has reached a paltry 6.7 percent, a nadir not seen in the United States since 1900.

Unions did not just fade away, but came under heavy attack. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and the state's GOP set their sights on unions in 2011, and effectively stripped unions of their base. Public-sector workers must now vote each year on unions and can't even volunteer to have dues deducted from their paychecks.

The national offense against unions started decades earlier, however, when employers began to squeeze unionized workers and began to break labor law more frequently. Democrat after Democrat did too little to defend workers' access to unions, and so quickened labor's demise.

We are now living through the latest contest over the terms of a new global economic system. What will be the rules and whom will they serve? It's part of the same struggle that undergirded Brexit and is fueling right-wing parties throughout Europe. We find ourselves at a dangerous moment. Diverse and inclusive democracies thrive best when prosperity is broadly shared, yet today inequality thrives and backlash surrounds us.

The Republicans' sweep means that they will be a position to rewrite the rules for the new economy, and it's clear they will soon escalate their attacks against workers' unions. They will attempt to do to the nation's union members what they did to Wisconsin's union members.

Shoring up unions must be at the core of the Democrats' plans at a deeper and more meaningful level than at any time in the last 30 years. Our democracy depends on economic equality more than ever, and unions remain one of our best tools for achieving it. 

Windham holds a PhD in history and is a fellow at Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.


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