The United Auto Workers is gaining concessions and unions are generating public support with strikes this year. But Democrats have been losing voting share among union members and private industrial unions are still in decline. What dynamics gave rise to unions’ Democratic support and is a resurgence possible? Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol investigate the political evolution of unions in Western Pennsylvania, a former heartland of Democratic union support. They find that union ties used to be an important part of working-class identities, social networks, and community life, guiding people toward Democratic support as part of a social consensus. But today, union members are more likely to socialize in gun clubs and less likely to retain Democratic ties and they see Democrats as socially distant and focused on cultural liberalism and college graduates.
Matt Grossmann: The decline of Union Democrats, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
The United Auto Workers is gaining concessions and unions are generating public support with strikes this year, but Democrats have been losing voting share among union members and private industrial unions are still in decline, threatening democratic support in the critical Midwest. What dynamics gave rise to union’s democratic support and is a resurgence possible? This week I talked to Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol of Harvard University about their new Columbia book, Rust Belt Union Blues. They investigate the political evolution of unions in Western Pennsylvania, a former heartland of Democratic Union support. They find that union ties used to be an important part of working class identities, social networks, and community life, guiding people toward democratic support as part of a social consensus. But today, union members are more likely to socialize in gun clubs and less likely to retain Democratic ties. And they see Democrats as socially distant and focused on cultural liberalism and college graduates. I talked to Lainey and Theda together, interjecting some personal stories and drawing on their own experiences. I think you’ll enjoy our conversation.
Theda, what are the main findings and takeaways from Rust Belt Union Blues?
Theda Skocpol: Well, the puzzle is posed right at the beginning of the book when we quote from one of Lainey’s interviews with a retired steelworker in Western Pennsylvania that every people used to take it for granted that you voted for Democrats. And of course we know as social scientists and observers of American politics, that’s not true now for blue collar workers throughout much of the United States, including in the Rust Belt and of which Western Pennsylvania was once the core, the heartland of powerful industrial unions in the mid 20th century in the United States whose members were loyal not only to their union, but often to the Democratic Party as well.
So our argument is that the strength of that attachment between unionized blue collar workers, particularly in Western Pennsylvania and the steel industry, but we think it’s a more general hypothesis at least, is more than a matter of the sheer numbers of members in the steelworkers Union, the amount of dues they were collecting, of personnel that they could hire in their regional and national offices. It wasn’t just a matter of what the union leaders, the international leaders endorsed or told other members to do. It had more to do with the way in which the union itself, and in many places, Democrats, were woven into the web of local community life because they were part of family life and recreational and community life beyond the workplace itself.
So when those industries went into big decline, even in the places where unionized workers are still there, some plants are still there, that web of connections that grounded the identity of a “union man” and they mostly were men, and grounded the commitment to vote for Democrats against Republicans, that has withered too particularly in industries and unions that were rooted in local communities, medium-sized cities. So we developed that argument with a lot of wonderful interviews that Lainey did as well as various analyses we’ve done of newsletters and observations and pulling together what other scholars have written about unions. We also make comparisons between two specific unions that are organized differently and have different kinds of relationships to local networks, the brotherhood of electrical co-workers versus the steelworkers. So our argument is an argument about political commitment and identity grounded in social relationships.
Matt Grossmann: So Lainey, situate us a little bit in western Pennsylvania where most of the book takes place. And I know it’s based in part on your personal experience in the Pittsburgh area. So how does that relate and give us some of the backstory behind this book?
Lainey Newman: Yeah, sure. So I grew up born in Pittsburgh, have lived in Pittsburgh my whole life until I moved to Cambridge for college. I guess my interest in understanding the evolution of Western Pennsylvania as it relates to electoral outcomes started probably when I was in high school and working a little bit volunteering just for the Democratic Party and doing some door to door knocking, that type of thing.
I think my interest in unions goes back to my family, which I had some extended family members, uncles, who were Latvian immigrants and who were very staunch union men up in Minneapolis, St. Paul area. They were members of the United Auto Workers and were very loyal, sort of really bought into this identity and loyalty to the auto workers and to the union and to the Democratic Party. And so that sort of was something that I drew upon, I guess, in trying to sort of frame this identity question. But the political aspect then came in with the changes that we’ve seen in Western Pennsylvania and how over time some of those counties outside of Pittsburgh that used to be were competitive between Democrats and Republicans today really are not at all, and our Republicans sort of win in margins greater than 30 and 40 percentage points. So trying to understand why such a sort of union dense area or once union dense area has now changed, but particularly within the union community and where that identity of the union man, union community, union family went over those decades.
Matt Grossmann: So Theda, this is in some sense a new book about unions in Western Pennsylvania, but in another sense, it’s a continuation of your decade along interests in the decline of American civic life. How different are the roles of unions versus the role of the funny hat groups and the other kinds of civic associations that used to play these democratic roles in life? And where did you see similarities and differences with what the groups you’ve studied before?
Theda Skocpol: So part of the answer here is that the people who were in unions, even the most left-leaning unions in the middle of the 20th century, were also members of the various cross class fraternal and ethnic associations that were rooted in those same communities. And they went back and forth holding events at each other’s headquarters or drawing on each other’s occasions, social occasions, and loyalties.
Now, that meant though that a particular union steelworker who belonged to say the Polish Club and the Hungarian, there’s a beautiful Hungarian badge, a Hungarian benefits society and fraternal group, and the steelworkers at the same time, would be associating with slightly different groups of people in those two settings, but not all that much. And the union outlook on the world, the defining of unions as the tool by which employers were forced to give higher wages and better working conditions to a generation of men who actually knew the difference because they had themselves experienced or they knew people who had experienced the pre union past, that union reality almost certainly influenced the ethnic fraternal groups, Black and white, all different European ethnicities drew in a lot of military veterans. These were all patriotic orders., and unions were too.
One of the things we found in the course of doing this work were not just badges, but for example, I remember finding a ritual for an early local union of the steelworkers in the CIO. And of course it’s much more secular than the kind of rituals that pre union fraternal groups performed, but it has exactly the same structure. The meetings were opened the same way, officers were elected, people were inducted. There wasn’t a vow of secrecy, but I guess it’s by way of saying that unions grew out of, and themselves contributed, to this longer tradition of cross class voluntary groups that had local meetings tied to higher district or state and national centers. So that’s part of the answer. I think it’s a different way of organizing brotherhood and sisterhood and it definitely builds stronger bridges across ethnic identities and even racial identities than a lot of the longstanding civic associations did. But in many ways, the way of organizing, meeting locally to build power and identity to have an impact at higher levels is very similar.
Matt Grossmann: Lainey, you focus on this idea of the union man, and you do discuss the long history of the integration of unions, but it does seem that the identity was specific to white men or at least predominantly white men at the height of its impact. Can we have this kind of working class identity tied to unions be as strong in a more diverse workforce?
Lainey Newman: I think absolutely, yeah. So just to go back to your initial thought about what the union man identity really encompasses, we talk about a couple of different things that we believe rooted the union man identity in community and in loyalty to the union. And those were sort of a mutual sense of commitment to other members, occupational pride in one’s work and skillset that one has, and then historical awareness as Theda was alluding to earlier, this knowledge of either first person knowledge or hearing from elders, I guess, about years past and working conditions that were vastly improved by the labor movement.
And so I think that those things, being connected with one another in unions and then connected with the community as a whole via the cross institutional array of different civic organizations in a lot of these towns, wasn’t necessarily specific to a certain race or ethnicity. In fact, I talked to a lot of retirees who discussed how they were at times members of multiple different ethnic clubs. They’d hold a card to the Lithuanian Club and also the Polish Club because everyone would get together in different days and in different places.
And so I think that as time went on, it did become more of a sort of diverse identity, including when women were integrated into a lot of these unions. I think that it can apply to today’s current workforce. In fact, I heard an interesting interview of a member of the United Auto Workers, a woman, who basically was pulling on all of these similar strands of identity and loyalty and sort of occupational pride. Her father had worked in the same plan, and this was in the context of the current strikes that are going on. And I found it really fascinating because I think that it is exactly the same components of really what created that union man identity. I think that the only thing that sort of makes it in our heads is the picture of the white man from the 1950s is because that’s what it was at that time. But moving forward, I think that the identity itself isn’t necessarily tied to a specific race or gender.
Theda Skocpol: We should also say that we were well aware as we were working on this book that the fashion right now is to talk about race as a sort of global all determining factor. So we paid careful attention to what we could learn for the period in the mid 20th century and then on through the end of the 20th century to the present about something that has been studied statistically. Union membership does tend to create bridges across Black and white, whites and Hispanics, as well as the gender divides that Lainey was talking about, more than other kinds of involvements, precisely because of this kind of horizontal loyalty that is and the sense that we’re in this together and if we don’t hang together, we will hang together.
So I mean, I think that appeared in our interviews. One of the striking interviews that’s in the book, and Lainey, correct me if I’ve got this wrong, is with a West Virginia person who was referring to somebody in the Mine Workers Union who said that, “Yeah, they were prepared to work closely with African-Americans and listen to the messages about economic bargaining and politics, but if they weren’t a member of the union, they’d probably be in the KKK.” Well, that’s exactly what’s happened in West Virginia. I can tell you since my sister lives there. It’s not the KKK, but without a strong union presence, without the mine workers being a major presence in communities and in national and state politics, people fall back on racial stereotypes that surely were even stronger in people’s individual attitudes and minds back in the 1950s than they are now.
So if a lot of social scientists study races if it was a matter of attitudes in the heads of disaggregated people, actually most people have a mixture of attitudes that can be activated and stereotypes that they believe, and that can be activated, ideals that they think about that can be activated in very different ways depending on who they’re interacting with and what they’re doing with other people. I think that’s a methodological point that we experienced very concretely in the work we were doing right down to the interviews. And it’s why we think that a predominantly white industry and a predominantly white male ranks of unionized steelworkers, they’re fewer of now, but they’re still there, they’re not switching to Republicans and voting for Donald Trump because they’re more racist now. It’s because something’s missing in their social networks, not because stuff in their heads has necessarily gotten more toxic. So that’s both a methodological point, which actually we’re pretty serious about. And it’s a point about race, that race is in some unchanging lump. It’s a set of potentialities that can be activated or not in different circumstances.
Matt Grossmann: But part of what you’re challenging is more of a, I guess, global understanding within political science that racial and cultural issues have become both more salient and more divisive between the left and the right while class issues have either become less so, or at least relatively less. And as you know, the income divides are declining in lots of the democratic world and education divides are increasing in lots of the educated world and the relative salience of cultural war issues is increasing. So even if people are not getting more racist, it could be that racial and other cultural attitudes are dividing us more than economic attitudes or more than they used to. To what extent can you have a kind of local story to something that the world is experiencing?
Theda Skocpol: Well, you pointed to the educational divide, which is an educational credential divide, isn’t it? It’s a divide about those who spend time in college and those who do not. And if you’ve got a bigger mixture of people who’ve been to college, that’s a local setting they’ve been in, where I would just observe that over the last 20 years, colleges have become hotbeds of identity talk 24/7. There are reasons for that. And of course it’s connected to larger social changes. And I don’t in any way want to suggest it have a pejorative take on it. I mean, people like me weren’t here 40 years ago. So I mean there are reasons for these things that are in the real world, but by local we don’t necessarily mean physically local. It happened that in the steelworkers, the physical local and the density of networks, of interactions inside and outside of work, particularly outside of work, coincided. T.
Hey didn’t coincide as much for the electrical workers and they don’t coincide in the same way for college-credentialed people. But you still have to look at who people are interacting with, what they take for granted, who they think they are, which politicians and leaders they think are on their side, and which politicians and leaders they think are on the other side. What television networks they watch is part of it too. And that tends to be pretty socially embedded. I don’t know a lot of people watching Fox News, but when I go out into the world to talk to my tea party people or if we talk to blue-collar people, you’re going to hear that, that that’s what they’re watching. I mean, I hope I’m answering this question. I don’t think this is an either/or, but I do think that just looking at attitude data without understanding the context in which the questions are framed and the answers are given is a sufficient methodology for understanding, for example, the role of race and politics.
Lainey Newman: I would just add onto to that, that I think that the salience of racial and cultural issues manifest and play out on the local level, right? So I think that though the trends and the dynamics are “global” because I guess these are narratives that we’re seeing in the media and in polling data and what have you, anyway, I think that the way that people experience those changes and those narratives being played out is very local. And the messages that people are listening to, the political signals that people are receiving and adhering to is a product of those local interactions and those individual interactions even though they’re playing out on the backdrop of these broader trends.
Matt Grossmann: So part of the story is about social connections of these people to the Democratic Party that have been lost, but part of the story has to be about what the image of the Democratic Party is today and having seeing those people as not me. You discussed the transition in Pittsburgh to the focus of the local democratic leadership on eds and meds as being the economic potential for the city. You also cite Kathy Kramer’s work in Wisconsin where she finds that it’s not just that they don’t see a connection to the Democratic Party, they see the Democratic Party as tied to the University of Wisconsin faculty out there maybe, working to help the people in the big city, but not them. How much is that part of the story, that the Democratic Party is changing and it’s where it’s growing, that people don’t necessarily see themselves in these formerly union households?
Lainey Newman: Yeah. So I mean, I think that the Democratic Party’s changing priorities is a huge part of the story, and we talk about that in our discussion of the evolution of these regions. I think that a lot of people do feel that the Democratic Party left them behind and has prioritized the coasts and urban centers. I think one of the sort of most empirical manifestations of that was where Hillary Clinton went during her 2016 campaign and not going to certain places and really trying to… Essentially her strategy being voters in these places don’t matter as long as we can run up the numbers high enough in the cities. The Democratic Party learned that that is not an effective strategy.
And so I think that there has been some coming to terms with that reality over the last couple years. I think that the posture that Biden has taken on has sort of, I guess, clawed back at those underlying assumptions that a lot of Democratic Party leaders were making for a long time. But I think that during the era of the steel decline, a lot of people felt like there were political choices and elite based choices that were being made to purposefully, or essentially the action that was being taken was inevitably going to hurt these communities and these individuals in this industry. And that can kind of be contrasted with… So Carter, for example, did not intervene to sort of save the steel industry. Obama did intervene to bail out the auto industry in the mid 2000s or late 2000s. So I think that these differences in inaction and action matter, it also matters where the Democratic Party is showing up and maintaining ties and building on itself. It’s not sufficient to just come around every election cycle and expect people to come out and vote for you.
Theda Skocpol: Our twist on the Kathy Kramer story is that we were looking, especially in that area in western Pennsylvania, at the sense of resentment or at least some mixture of resentment and appreciation that people around Pittsburgh experienced as they watched the city of Pittsburgh make the transition to the eds and meds and set up a museum or something or nostalgic things about the steel city while their communities were being bypassed. I mean, I actually think in Kathy Kramer’s work, it isn’t all as rural as she says. I think she’s talking about rural is not big cities, but we are specifically looking at that divide between medium city areas that used to flourish along with the bigger cities and the bigger cities. And that’s where the divide between the parties is now. It’s at the edge between the suburbs with educated college credentialed people in them, not a whole lot of unionists, and then the exurbs.
And in the past, some of those exurbs, or at least those near end suburbs would’ve been blue collar strongholds of the Democrats. The Democrats are literally not even there, or at least they weren’t. I mean, I do think the one thing Biden learned from the Hillary Clinton-Trump election is that you better go there and you better lose by less if you want to carry a state like Pennsylvania. Biden carried Pennsylvania in 2020, whereas Hillary lost it in 2016 because he lost less decisively in the non Philadelphia collar area and the areas in western Pennsylvania. He actually eked out a win in Erie, and note that he goes to Erie. That’s part of the mystery of why Donald Trump could appeal to people who feel so left behind. They can’t have a beer with him. Are you kidding? And I’m not even sure very many of them think he’s going to carry through on his promises, but they think he goes to where he is. His rallies are always cited in these kind of medium city areas, and he’s always saying, “I understand your resentments.”
So when I did research after the Trump election in 2016, I would go to places like that and they would say, “Hillary Clinton never came here and the Democrats weren’t here. They sent some young man from Brooklyn,” they said. They said that to me in different parts of the country. “They sent some young man from Brooklyn at the last minute who told us to do the wrong things.” That’s what they said. Well, I think the Democrats are beginning to learn that lesson. And in some key states and some parts of states, they’re beginning to be there a little more. And that is what we would conclude they have to do. They’re not going to revive their ties to the industrial unions in the same way, but they do need to be in these places all the time.
Matt Grossmann: So Lainey, you have a comparison between an industrial union and a building trades union, the electrical workers. And you also say a little bit about the changes in labor in the United States, but the big one that I somewhat left out is the transition to public sector unions where a much greater proportion of union members are now in the public sector than they used to be. So what did you learn from your comparison and how much of this applies to the modern union workforce, which is a lot different?
Lainey Newman: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. So in our comparison between the steelworkers and electrical workers, we sort of distilled different components of the structure of the unions and how they communicate with their members, how they’re able to create member to member ties in different ways. And there are some key differences between the steelworkers and the electrical workers that I think can be fairly extrapolated to industrial unions versus the craft unions or the skilled trade unions. So steelworkers are very sort of place-based in that each local union is centered usually around one plant, factory mill facility, industrial facility and everyone at that individual place would be part of the same local union. Whereas the electrical workers, each local union is a hiring hall. So people are sort of going to the local union for the next project that they’re assigned on, but they are not place-based ties because the projects are changing. It could be that a couple months you’re on one thing in one county and then you’re on another project in a different area entirely. So there’s a lot more sort of fluidity in movement.
What we saw is that the electrical workers actually were quite effective at keeping in touch with their members, at circulating information, and sort of maintaining a sense of community via these communications to their members. And the steelworkers sort of deprioritize the community and social aspects of communication during this sort of decline of union power from the ’50s to today. And so steelworkers mainly now prioritize business affairs, union affairs, and political topics, whereas it seems as though we have suggestive evidence that the electrical workers prioritize more community building than the steelworkers.
I think that in terms of the public sector unions and the service workers, it’s important, I think just, and this is something that Theda and I definitely care about in this research, to understand how different these unions are both by industry and by individual union, and that it’s really hard to aggregate at a large scale trends about union membership because of just how different the outcomes and effects are based on which union you’re talking about or what industry you’re talking about.
So public sector unions, I think that one important thing is that generally the average member is going to be already more inclined to vote democratic. So the average member would be a woman and be relatively highly educated. And being part of a public sector union or being in the public sector itself is a predictor is correlated with more likelihood to vote democratic. So I don’t think the effect that we see… I mean similar things could be said about service workers, especially because there’s more people of color and women of color in those industries. But I think that the effects that we see in terms of the political potence of the union would be somewhat diminished in both the public sector unions and in the service workers unions. But I think that the identity factors and the loyalty and the lessons that our research talks about how to build a constituency and a community around the union do translate to other types of unions as well.
Theda Skocpol: Things that was really-
Matt Grossmann: Another comparison that you make is with the gun clubs and many of which require National Rifle Association membership. That kind of gives a chance to try to tease out what is the role of an issue position, somebody’s for gun rights versus an identity of being a gun owner versus the actual kind of on the ground social interactions of being at a gun club. How do you see those things working together and comparing to the unions?
Theda Skocpol: I think this is a wonderful area for further research, which we could only begin to kind of sketch the possibilities. If you go back to the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, all the way up to the present, you’re going to find guides in Western Pennsylvania going hunting. In fact, that we found in our newsletter analysis, which by the way is a wonderful kind of way to track change over time if you can get a run of a publication, Matthew [inaudible 00:34:59], we really learned from his work. And of course he did a great deal with those NRA magazines over years. It was a lot harder to find runs of newsletters for the unions, either the internationals or local, but we did took a considerable degree. And if you go back and you look at them, they often had sections on hunting and they certainly had articles and they certainly had instructions about how to get a hunting license. So all of those things.
And even now you see the remaining unions in places like Western Pennsylvania have gun clubs themselves in an effort to keep people from gravitating to the NRA-connected more regional gun clubs. So we’re not saying that people don’t care about guns. I think they care about them, they use them, they socialize around gun activities, probably hunting being one of them. There’s a lot of good research that shows that shooting ranges and gun clubs have become more important sources of socializing among such people. And that’s the point. We were asking the question, as union halls disappear, as union meetings are harder to convene at all or aren’t convened, as they don’t link up to a web of other groups in a local community among the steelworkers, where were people going? And they were going to gun clubs and to megachurches, often driving long distances just like remaining union workers do to the remaining plants.
So that means that taking a look at what kinds of political elites and national organizations with political messages are connecting up to the gun clubs is important. And I think it’s been a deliberate strategy on the part of the NRA and other gun advocacy organizations to sink roots in a lot of these local facilities, which are places that people go for drinking, for weddings, for social events to meet political candidates just like they used to do those things in union halls or in ethnic halls connected to union halls.
So we’re once again suggesting that… Not that people stop asking about attitudes. “Do you believe in the Second Amendment?” Whatever. That’s fine. But find out where people are hearing about the latest on that issue and where their interactions are and what kind of informal messages might be carried in those settings. There is a fair amount of good research out there on megachurches that shows that they have lots and lots of internal groups. They often have men’s groups and family groups and women’s groups and Wednesday prayer sessions. So there are many, many places where people can get the message to be a good citizen, “You got to vote. And to vote, you got to vote for a Republican,” the same kind of messages that they would’ve gotten through unions in the past on the other side.
Matt Grossmann: Lainey, one of the analyses that you did seemed to show that maybe they’re getting through a little bit more than the union side. You went to the parking lots of these facilities and saw what kinds of stickers people had on their cars. So what did you find there? And did you find that, from a more democratic organizer perspective, a bit depressing about the likelihood that this is going to turn around?
Lainey Newman: Yeah. I mean, the bumper sticker analysis sort of just grew out of me driving around Western Pennsylvania to these different areas, a lot of them along the Monongahela River, going south down to West Virginia. This was during the pandemic. And so I was thinking about ways that you could sort of just, are there yard signs or these types of things that signal a particular political affiliation? I drove by an employee parking lot and I was like, “That’s it. I’ll go in and check out the bumper stickers.”
So yeah, I mean I think that it is disheartening. It would be disheartening for democratic organizers to see that a lot of these union members have such conservative leanings. I think the highest rate, the highest number of bumper stickers that I recorded were gun-related. So a lot of people talking about gun rights or some of these stickers with sort of snarky gun, pro-gun catchphrases or whatever, like gun control means hitting your target, that type of thing.
But I mean, I think that it wasn’t surprising to people. I talked to my older interviewees. When I brought it up with them that I was looking around and I saw that all these cars have these conservative leaning bumper stickers, some of my older retirees that I talked to about this were not surprised in the least. They knew that that change had taken place. I think what’s important about it is not only that people have those beliefs and are putting them on their cars in that they have the beliefs, but also that they aren’t ashamed or that it isn’t a culture, I guess, in the community where someone would get kind of pushback for that.
And I think that in years past, there was more of a sense of, “Oh, well, if some person is defecting and is going to do something that would indicate some sort of disloyalty to the union, there would be pushback from fellow union members.” But that is not the case anymore. And so I’m not sure… I mean, I think that all of these things go to how we could move in the direction of getting some of those union members back, but I’m not sure exactly where that would start right now.
Theda Skocpol: Well, just methodologically, remember Lainey, this happened during COVID when you could drive around and you came and told me about it and I got extremely excited. And I sent her back. I told her, “Go back and count. Go back and count.” And then we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we could get a sense of what it was like in the 1950s and ’60s. I don’t know, we couldn’t see the parking lots. I don’t think that we could have found pictures, but you took it to your retirees and asked them to talk about what it was like. So it’s just one strand of evidence that doesn’t pass the Gary King test at all. But we tried to be more systematic about it. And I think what people proclaim publicly does matter.
I remember the Democrats in 2016 saying, “Oh, yard signs don’t matter.” Well, yes they do, especially in these more sparsely populated areas. If you see a lot of yard signs in one direction and not in the other, you get the idea everybody’s doing it. And everybody’s doing it is… That’s why everybody in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a Democrat. Let’s face it. I mean, it’s not as if we’re outside of this. There’s a big social component to political choices.
Matt Grossmann: So we’re speaking at a time when the UAW is very visibly winning some contract gains and the public support for unions and for the union side and specific conflicts is very high. Biden recently visited the picket lines of the UAW. Trump tried to hastily do something in Detroit to align himself as well. So what is the opening here, if there is one? I happen to be on a flight that was delayed twice in Detroit once for Air Force One to come in, and same flight, delayed for Air Force One to go out. So it may not have been your kind of long-term commitment that you all are asking for, but it was very visible attempt to show an affiliation. So is there a sort of hope for this connection between the Democratic Party and the unions, or is there a broader opening with unions being more popular at the moment?
Theda Skocpol: I’ll say something and then I’m sure Lainey has things to say too. I mean, I had to give a lecture on this in the course that we’re both teaching in American Society and Public Policy. It’s striking, the attitude shift toward unions is quite marked, but pro-union sentiment has grown more among college educated people than it has among blue collar or without college degrees. So this is not some kind of revival of what once was.
Does it matter that general public opinion is more favorable toward unions and unionization? It does. And we know that in the last year there’ve been more union organizing efforts, there’ve been more strikes. However, it’s not likely that this whole thing is going to result in a revival of mass blue collar industrial unionism because a lot of the union victories now are occurring in higher educated occupations, public sector, nonprofits, smaller workplaces in the service sector, even smaller workplaces in the private sector like Starbucks. So all of this is happening and yet the share of private sector unions, but workers that are in unions, is continuing to tick down each year than even in the last year.
It’s more that the voice of unions that still exist and that are gaining some strength, and there are some that are gaining, will be more respected and more heard in general public debates. And I think it is telling that Biden went to Michigan. Now, the UAW is one of the more vibrant remaining blue collar unions, and it has been for a long time. It also is the union that benefited from the fact that Obama didn’t just let the auto industry go under the way in which Democrats before him let the steel industry go under. So this is definitely of significance in close fought elections in key states across the Rust Belt, no question about it. But whether there’s going to be a huge increase in the share of unionized workforce, I don’t think so, particularly because we have to remember that so much of industry is shifting to the south and these are still right to work states that are hostile to unions.
Matt Grossmann: Lainey, one of the things that it seems like your work could help explain is that we often find these context effects in addition to individual-level effects. So everything that predicts that you on an individual level vote Democratic or Republican also sometimes has an effect at the geographic level. So education’s having an individual effect. It’s also having a bigger effect if you live in educated or less educated areas. Same thing with union effects, that they’re not just whether you’re a member, but whether you’re in an area with high union density. And it does seem like social relationships and kind of cultures might be a piece of that. So I guess give us a sense of whether you think that this affected people beyond just the directly connected and whether the change has also done that. And if so, is that kind of a sign that these are going to continue to move in the same direction, that we’re unlikely to have a reversal if it’s the pattern that Theda mentioned, that, well, it’s what people around you are doing, it’s how they’re changing that are also going to reinforce your change?
Lainey Newman: Yeah, I think that during the height of big labor, there was an immense impact not only within the unions themselves, but in broader communities that the unions did have on those communities. And so, I guess I’ll start by saying I think that the family was something that unions prioritized a great deal and women were paid attention to, wives were paid attention to in the sense that they were involved in various activities of the unions. They oftentimes had women’s auxiliaries and would come in and provide supportive services, I guess, to their spouses. A lot of the socialization was made possible by the women involved. Men would go to socialize with one another and women would take care of the children in these traditional nuclear families. And there was also tension paid to children and we see that in some of the newsletter data where a lot of the meetings were happening at high schools where the unions were sponsoring Soap Box Derbys, that type of thing, and were involved in the community in a really significant sense.
In this survey that we found from 1955 in the Archives at Penn State, one of the things that was almost universally accepted and encouraged by members, by rank and file steelworker members, was involvement of their local unions in their communities. So people were very much in favor of the unions being involved in charitable activities on the local level or being involved with other community institutions. And I mean, we see that with all of the relationships that unions had in this era to other institutions using facilities, sharing facilities, exchanging co-sponsoring events, clergy members writing pro-labor articles in various newsletters or labor newspapers, that type of thing. So I think that the union influence during the height of union power had a huge, huge impact beyond just the union member himself or later on herself.
And so I guess in terms of whether that plays out today, I think similarly, the union impact is sort of a ripple effect and not only affects communities, local communities, but also other industries or other companies within the same industry. And that it generally brings up wages for those people and that there are subsequent effects down the line. But I don’t know if all of those are necessarily realized and understood by people so I’m not sure how the community impact would play out today in terms of the changes that we’re seeing in union demographics.
Theda Skocpol: Well, here’s a hypothesis. A lot of the industries, both blue collar and college degreed industries including public sector that have gained or at least held their own in the current period, and like I say, nonprofits including university people are unionizing, I mean, we have graduate students in the UAW at Harvard. And we’ll say something about that in a minute, but the fact that there are more females in unionizing workplaces and occupations almost certainly means, and I think there’s some evidence for this, we do not cite it in the book but it’s a great area to study, that there are more people paying attention to these kinds of beyond the workplace and family connected interactions that created a strong steelworkers union in a very different setting in the past. So that may be part of the reason that you see the shift toward pro-union sentiment among college degreed people. I think more of them may have some familiarity with unions as a kind of brand or somebody that they know is in them or they’ve been to an event that the union is involved in.
It’s also book learning of course in the increasing sensitivity to inequality among people who are themselves benefiting from inequality but could care about it anyway. So I do think that these spillover effects are almost certainly there, and I guess the message would be look for them. Don’t just ignore them when you do research. We found that you really cannot rely on a survey that just says, “Are you a union member or not a union member? What kind of union are you a member of? Who are the people in it? What’s the industry? What are the organizational features of that union and how do they intersect with civic life and politics?” Those kinds of questions are hard to study. You can’t sit in front of a computer and find all the answers, but I do think that there’s plenty to look into there, including the whole question which I’ll queue up for Lainey. What happens when the declining blue collar industrial unions decide they’re going to unionize librarians and graduate students? Does that add to their strength or subtract from it or does it do a little of both?
Lainey Newman: Well, I think it does a little bit of both, but I think that in terms of the original industry and the original members of those industries, there is a sense of distance that’s put between them and the union as a result of the diversification of industries represented. So as I mentioned, I am a member of the United Auto Workers because I’m a grad student and I’m a teaching fellow, so I’m employed by the university and they negotiated a great contract with the university. But I do think that something that I heard from some of the steelworker interviewees is that now anyone can be a steelworker. It doesn’t have a steelworker with a capital S, right? So a steelworker being a united steelworker, a member of the United Steelworkers. And anyone can be it, so what does it really mean? Does the union actually pay attention to the needs of the specific industrial original industry members, or is it sort of just this broad based special interest group essentially?
So I think that there is a sense of a little bit of loss, I guess, in that sense, for the original industry members of those unions.
Matt Grossmann: The UAW is also the organizer of grad students at Berkeley, so I was a member as well. So one of the other things this reminded me of Theda was the analysis of Black partisanship in steadfast Democrats where they point out that very conservative African-Americans are more likely to vote democratic if they’re in social institutions like Black churches and barbershops and elsewhere where they are surrounded by other African-Americans. Even when they’re being interviewed by an African-American, they’re more likely to say they’re going to vote democratic. And they imply that this is about there’s a consensus in the group and there’s a social sanction if you don’t abide by that consensus. And part of the union effects of the past might be something like that. And if so, seems like it’s hard to bring that back. Once there’s no consensus and there’s no social sanction, can they help to move people who maybe have political views that are more conservative to bring them back into the Democratic fold?
Theda Skocpol: Well, that’s why it’s not a question of going back to what was there before. It’s a question of inserting yourself being present in what is happening now. And let’s take the Georgia Democratic Party, which I’ve written a paper about in another setting. It took them quite a few election cycles and it took them a conscious decision, both the party itself, but groups around the party to be an ongoing year-round presence in the medium city areas of Georgia, not just around Atlanta to improve the margins enough so that you could have a victory for Joe Biden.
Now, Joe Biden is not an exciting African-American charismatic figure. So there’s an awful lot of consultants. They’ll tell you, you can’t win without one. Nonsense. They won by building a year-round presence of groups of peers. I remember running across the evidence that in the area around Albany, Georgia, fairly conservative area of south, I think western Georgia, they were organizing through the funeral director’s networks. “Find out what networks there are and be in touch with them.” Not telling them what to do, not arriving a month before the election, but being there to share messages. Stacey Abrams was very much behind this when she discovered that a lot of people in Georgia, in Black communities in Georgia, did not understand that the Affordable Care Act had to be implemented partly through the state. They thought President Obama was denying them access to Medicaid.
So I think there’s an assumption in college educated democratic circles and the various consultants that hang around in Washington, DC that everybody knows the issues and it’s just a question of pressing a button with an issue in an identity and there you are. Actually, politics is complex. It’s opaque. It has to do with hearing messages from people you trust around you and hearing them about 500 times year round. So the answer for Democrats, even for progressives and liberals, is not to go try to recreate the past. It’s to find out where the interactions are now and be part of them.
Matt Grossmann: So Lainey, part of that interaction might be just occurring online and in digital realms now. I know that you were attracted to Theda’s series of badges and history of civic organizing, but I imagine some students in your generation think, “Well, that’s just old hat, and now we’re on to civic organizing.” And there is, in Michigan, plenty of my students or folks that I know posting pro UAW stuff on their social media feeds as well. So it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that we’re in kind of a new age of social interaction. On the other hand, it does seem like it’s a little easier to do that than to establish real in-person social relationships. So how would you see it as kind of the current state of civic engagement? And is it possible that this new kinds of not new, but more online interactions will replace the old?
Lainey Newman: Yeah, I mean, I think people still feel a need, I think, for a sense of community and a sense of belonging. And the way that manifests today is different, of course, than it was 70 years ago. But the fundamental human need for social connection and for community is still there. And so, I mean, I think that there are ways that social media and new types of organizing can be used really well and positively for unions, but I also think that there’s always going to be a role for in-person engagement. I think nothing proves that better than the pandemic that we just had and everyone being completely isolated on their computers, not of their own choosing, but because they had everyone had to.
I think that coming back into post pandemic world, I think a lot of people are sort of a little bit more appreciative or cognizant of the impact of in-person engagement with other people. I mean, even what we see with the NRA and these local gun clubs having these social elements that used to be social elements of union halls, and that used to be social elements of fraternal groups, and even some of these more extremist organizations like The Proud Boys, was originally described by its founder Gavin McInnes as a drinking club like the Elks, right? I mean, I think that the need and the desire is always going to be there, and I think it’s a matter of strategizing when we should use the internet and virtual sort of connection as opposed to in-person connection. But I mean, I’m a big proponent of getting people together in real life.
Theda Skocpol: The history of American civic life shows that what passes in any given era for virtual connection and what passes and what is in fact face-to-face always intersect in shaping organizations, associations, and collective impact in civic and political life. Everybody forgets, but the US became a nation of organizers not through purely local stuff. And our argument is not about purely local, it’s about the rooting of the trans-local, in the face-to-face and the local.
In the past, the post office played a huge role in connecting what past for virtual contact and was virtual. People were interacting and communicating and delivering political messages and learning about content in non-face-to-face ways, in ways that reinforce the building of the face-to-face components of the associations they were in. So I think there’s a lot of research to be done now, but there’s a lot of research that’s beginning to show. It’s the way in which face-to-face and virtual interact and the ways in which they reinforce one another or undercut one another. It’s not that everything happens virtually. There’s some very good research on that in different kinds of movement context. And if it’s just a bunch of tweets, well Twitter isn’t even there anymore. It’s not going to last.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center, and I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, I think you should check out these episodes next, Labor Union Influence on Inequality and Legacy Costs, What Explains the Diploma Divide, How Rich White Residents and Interest Groups Rule Local Politics, How to Build Institutions, Not Political Hobbies, and Why are Black Conservatives Still Democrats. Thanks to Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol for joining me. Please check out Russ Belt Union Blues, and then listen in next time.