The State of Union America

Flaws and Frustrations Galore

America may be home to fewer labor union members than ever before, but their political impact cannot be overlooked. As 2020 approaches, the union vote has the potential to swing the White House one way or the other.

In 2012, nearly 65 percent of union members voted for President Obama, with barely 30 percent supporting his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Fast forward to 2016, and President Trump won over 38 percent of the union vote, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 55.2 percent—still a gap, but a much closer one. Moreover, Clinton only managed to win 40.7 percent of the white union vote, trailing her Republican opponent by a significant margin and helping propel him to victory.

Indeed, much has been written about President Trump’s support among blue-collar households. But what exactly is the state of union America today? And how might it impact the 2020 election?

Here’s the short answer: Union officials are struggling to find new sources of revenue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the percentage of wage and salary workers who are union members has fallen to 10.5 percent—down from about one-third of the U.S. workforce in the 1960s.

In other words, fewer than 15 million U.S. employees belong to a labor union. And the numbers get worse for union officials in the private sector, where only 7.6 million workers are union members—just 6.4 percent of the private-sector workforce.

On the bright side, Millennials are providing a new source of revenue. Between 2016 and 2017, union ranks welcomed nearly 400,000 new members under the age of 35. Indeed, 75 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 view labor unions favorably, compared to only 50 percent of those older than 65.

Partly due to the youth surge, union officials still wield a disproportionate amount of political power. During the 2016 election cycle, labor-affiliated groups and individuals poured more than $215 million into political races nationwide. Almost 90 percent of those contributions went to Democratic candidates.

Dig deeper into union financial filings, and their political spending transcends direct contributions to candidates. According to the right-leaning Center for Union Facts, labor unions have donated more than $1.3 billion to liberal causes in recent years—99 percent of their total political advocacy spending. This includes contributions to liberal advocacy groups such as the Clinton Foundation, Center for American Progress, and Planned Parenthood—not Democratic campaigns per se, but activist groups generally aligned with the party platform.

So union America must be overwhelmingly liberal, right? Wrong: Roughly 40 percent of union household members—that is, members of households with at least one union member—vote Republican, which is a sizable minority.

What you find is a clear disconnect between union officials and their dues-paying members—a far less monolithic voting bloc than one might expect. The numbers bear this out: Based on 2016 polling data, only 25 percent of current and former union members believe that union officials “do a good job representing their membership.” Nearly 60 percent consider union leadership to be “out of touch.”

Unionized workers have legitimate gripes—political and otherwise. Much of today’s union leadership is essentially grandfathered in from generations past, so many employees are “represented” by their predecessors’ union officials. According to research from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, 94 percent of union members never actually voted for the labor union that currently “represents” them. That’s right: 94 percent!

(This is corroborated by an earlier Zogby International survey of more than 700 union members.)

In union America, workplace democracy is not the status quo. That’s why, in part, members of Congress have recently taken interest in reforming federal labor laws. The Employee Rights Act (ERA), for example, would require all unionized workplaces to periodically hold a secret ballot referendum to determine whether those employees wish to remain represented by their current labor union or not.

The ERA would, at least in theory, hold union officials more accountable to their membership. Given the increase in union membership among Millennials, there is no better time for pro-employee reform.

But, for now, accountability too often escapes union America. Many employees find themselves stuck in antiquated, unproductive labor unions, dealing with union officials who are unresponsive to their needs.

Which brings us to 2020: The status quo presents a dream opportunity for a pragmatic politician. Democrat or Republican, the candidate who can sympathize with and capitalize on workplace frustration is the one most likely to succeed.

That candidate should look no further than union America, where frustrated workplaces are a dime a dozen.

Luka Ladan is the President and CEO of Zenica Public Relations and a Catalyst Policy Fellow. Prior to founding Zenica, Ladan served as Communications Director at a leading public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
Catalyst articles by Luka Ladan