Labor’s lonely decline

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On election night, as it became clear that Donald Trump was headed to victory in battleground states such as Florida and North Carolina, all eyes turned to the upper Midwest — specifically Michigan. 

At around 10:30 p.m., a longtime Democratic strategist in Chicago told The Hill he thought the race was over. “We save the goddamn auto industry and they f— us,” the operative wrote in an online chat. “Because [the United Automobile Workers] can’t control their f—ing members.”

{mosads}Trump ended up winning Michigan by 10,704 votes.

The labor movement once sustained the Democratic Party in places such as Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, fueling campaigns with millions of dollars in contributions, hundreds of thousands of votes and thousands of volunteers. But decades of stagnation, a changing economy, shifting attitudes toward unions and political inattention have all conspired to sap the unions of power, and their affinity for Democratic candidates. 

While labor leaders stood uniformly behind Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, rank-and-file workers were split. Clinton won support from just 56 percent of AFL-CIO members in 2016, according to the union’s internal surveys, lower than any Democratic nominee in modern times. Former President Obama won 67 percent of AFL-CIO members in 2008 and 65 percent in 2012.

An internal survey conducted by the UAW showed Clinton won 59 percent of the vote among UAW members, retirees and their families, compared with 33 percent who went for Trump. Eight percent of the union’s workers either didn’t vote for president or supported a candidate other than Trump or Clinton in 2016.

“The Democratic Party after ’08 started losing touch or credibility with those working-class voters,” said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director.

Those lost votes cost Clinton states in the Midwest — and the presidency. They are emblematic of a Democratic Party struggling to connect with the blue-collar workers who once made up its core.

This is the seventh story in our Changing America series, in which we explore the trends shaping society and politics today. The divides between growing urban cores and struggling rural regions, and between younger and older generations of Americans, are evident in the diminishing power of the nation’s labor unions, power that ebbed as the Democratic Party lost touch, and as Republicans moved to change the way Americans think about collective bargaining.

The labor movement once represented more than 1 in 3 Americans in the workforce. After peaking in 1954, that number declined to about 1 in 5 workers in 1983, and just 11 percent today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the makeup of those union jobs has changed, too. In the last decade and a half, the number of union manufacturing jobs across the nation has declined from 2.8 million to just under 1.3 million. At the same time, professional unions, made up of teachers, public safety officers and healthcare workers, have grown, from about 5 million members at the turn of the century to 6 million today.

“The decline in unionization is another manifestation of a changing economy,” said Colm O’Comartun, a lobbyist who once ran the Democratic Governors Association.

Many of those who lost union jobs during the recession remain underemployed, unemployed or out of the workforce entirely.

“When those jobs leave, you have this population of workers who had very industry-specific jobs for several decades. They’d been employed by one industry, one plant, one factory from cradle to grave. So they have no training that might translate to a different job,” said Marquita Walker, a labor studies expert at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “There’s a whole pool of people, probably millions in the United States, that will just never assimilate back into the workforce.”

Republicans who run state legislatures in crucial states have contributed to union decline, too. Six states have passed so-called right-to-work measures in recent years, including Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Wisconsin legislators passed a collective-bargaining reform package in 2011, a legislative fight that drew thousands to the state capitol in Madison in protest.

“We were tired of the big-government union bosses running our state and local governments,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said at the 2016 Republican National Convention. “So we did something about it. We took the power from the hands of the big-government special interests and returned it firmly into the hands of the hard-working taxpayers.”

The combination of a recession that hit manufacturing jobs and new legislation restricting union power has made a pronounced dent in union membership in many Midwestern states. At the turn of the century, 17.8 percent of Wisconsin workers were a part of a union; today that number is down to 8.1 percent. In Michigan, 14.4 percent of workers are represented by a union, down from 21.9 percent in 2003. Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Pennsylvania have also experienced steep drops in union rates in the last decade and a half.

The Democratic decline is especially pronounced in counties with high numbers of manufacturing jobs. Of the 170 counties in America in which manufacturing made up more than a quarter of total jobs, Trump won 164.

Union dollars still make up a huge percentage of money spent for Democrats in political campaigns. Labor unions spent more than $200 million for Democrats in the 2016 election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, much higher than in previous years. 

But in states like Wisconsin, the implementation of new barriers on union membership has taken a toll. Three Wisconsin branches of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest government employee union in the state, saw their revenues decline from $13.8 million the year Walker won election to $6.2 million in 2013, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Even some Republicans once embraced unions. Former President Ronald Reagan, a former union head himself, won endorsements from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a year before he broke its strike. He won support from the Teamsters Union when he sought reelection in 1984.

Today, support for unions has dropped. Just 23 percent of Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in organized labor, according to Gallup polling. Fifty-six percent of Americans say they have a favorable attitude toward unions, still high, but far below the 75 percent who once said the same. As recently as 2009, fewer than half of Americans had a favorable view of unions.

As white voters in other corners of the country turned increasingly conservative, Midwestern blue-collar workers “defied demographic gravity,” Podhorzer said. But when the economic recovery helped bolster big cities on the coasts, those workers in the Midwest felt left behind by the party they once supported in droves.

“Blue-collar workers particularly want to rewrite the way the economy works,” Podhorzer said. “They were not hearing a credible message about why voting for Democrats helped them move toward that goal.”

But those voters do see a champion in President Trump, who wore a hard hat on the campaign trail, sat in the cab of a truck on the White House lawn and promises to bring back coal jobs that were once heavily union.

“Trump is working hard to be the blue-collar president, and he’s speaking directly to those rank-and-file hard hat members,” said Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

In that sense, Trump’s promise to make America great again, however vague, dovetails with the last president’s equally vague pledge to bring hope and change.

Voters who embraced Trump’s message, and Walker’s, and that of other Republicans who have promised to curtail the power of unions, are more apt to associate unions with a professional class that looks down on them than with blue-collar manufacturing jobs, O’Comartun said.

“They don’t hate rich people. They hate professional, condescending elitists that don’t care about them,” he said. “They just want to punish the people that are not for them.”

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