Democrats should fully embrace their union roots

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On August 7, union leaders celebrated as Missourians overwhelming voted to overturn a Republican-backed state law to institute “right-to-work,” a misleadingly-named policy that undercuts union fundraising by letting workers avoid paying fees for union-provided workplace benefits.

After decades of union defeats, this victory could be a critical one for organized labor and for the Democratic Party. 

Recent years have seen a concerted campaign to reduce union power. A spate of laws similar to the Missouri legislation have passed in states with strong union traditions, including Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

{mosads}Earlier this summer, in the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case, the Supreme Court decided that fees charged by public-sector unions were unconstitutional, effectively making the public sector “right-to-work” in all 50 states. The case hits one of the last bastions of unionism in the United States. 


It is not just unions that struggle when right-to-work laws pass, however. Unions have long been a vital component of the Democratic Party, so these losses have tilted the electoral playing field toward Republicans. Our research on the effect of right-to-work laws demonstrates just how much the laws cost Democratic candidates.

Studying counties that border one another where one county is in a right-to-work state and the other is not, we find that the passage of right-to-work laws reduce Democratic presidential vote share by about 3.5 percentage points — and have similar effects down the ballot in other federal and state elections.

These are big effects in a purple state like Missouri. In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama lost Missouri by less than a single percentage point. Moreover, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), is in a very tight race for re-election this year.

The two most recent polls have McCaskill either ahead by one point or losing by two. In close elections like these, whether a state is a right-to-work one or not could be a deciding factor.

How do unions have such a large impact on politics? First, unions provide election funding and get-out-vote manpower. When right-to-work laws pass, our research shows that turnout goes down by two to three percentage points.

Working-class people are also less likely to report they were contacted to vote in states with right-to-work in place. So Missouri’s referendum will likely help unions and allied groups get more working people to the polls in 2018 and beyond.

The referendum may also get more working people onto the ballot. Though the political class is dominated by white-collar professionals like business owners and lawyers, our research finds that right-to-work laws reduce the already-small percentage of working-class people serving in state legislatures and in Congress even more.

Aaron Sojourner and Nick Carnes have both shown that stronger unions increase the likelihood of blue-collar workers serving in state government. By overturning right-to-work, Missourians have helped preserve one avenue by which working-class Americans are represented in politics and exercise their political voice. 

In fact, the campaign itself appears to have heightened workers’ political engagement. In Missouri, the campaign to overturn right-to-work brought many more people into active union membership, and locals are preparing for an uptick in candidates running for union leadership positions — and possibly politics as well. 

Could the Missouri vote be evidence of a revived union movement? Certainly it joins other positive signs for organized labor, along with the defeat of public-sector union bargaining cutbacks in a 2011 referendum in Ohio; the recent teachers’ strikes in red states like Oklahoma and West Virginia; the wave of unionization in media; and minimum-wage increase campaigns that have succeeded in many major cities.

But the referendum in Missouri is still a defensive victory, preventing a policy that would weaken unions rather than passing a law that would strengthen organized labor. It will take more than the overturning of right-to-work laws to reverse the decades-long decline in union membership nationally.

Given unions’ importance to Democratic Party electoral fortunes, it is puzzling that liberals have not given greater priority to a positive agenda for union rights. State-level Democrats rarely pursue legislation expanding union rights, and the Obama administration passed up an opportunity for sweeping federal labor law reform in 2009 and 2010.

In contrast, the conservative movement has certainly identified policy to cripple organized labor as a way to shape its own political destiny.

Perhaps poll-watching Democrats have been hesitant to run on a pro-union campaign, given that surveys often find very high levels of uncertainty about what right-to-work even is. In 2014, almost half of American adults told a Gallup poll that they had never heard of right-to-work laws.

But the Missouri victory shows that a pro-union position can indeed speak to voters. In fact, careful survey also suggest that about half of nonunion workers say that, given the chance, they would vote to join a union.

A long line of studies in economics has documented the effects of unions on their members’ wages, benefits and working conditions. If Democrats gave workers more opportunities to unionize, our research suggests the party —and progressive politics more generally — would benefit as well. 

James Feigenbaum is an assistant professor of economics at Boston University. Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an assistant professor of public affairs at Columbia University and the author of “Politics at Work” (Oxford, 2018). Vanessa Williamson is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes” (Princeton, 2017). The authors are all members of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Tags Barack Obama Business Claire McCaskill Democratic Party economy Industrial relations Industrial Workers of the World Labor unions in the United States Labour relations Right-to-work law Trade union Wisconsin protests

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