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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Meyerson: Why Dems and Unions Prosper Together

Harold Meyerson recently explained why “Why Democrats Need Unions More Than Ever” at The American Prospect:

A new study out today from the Center for American Progress Action Fund reveals that one of the constants of American electoral politics is still constant: Union voters still vote more Democratic than their non-union counterparts. Despite Democratic hand-wringing over the flight of working-class men to Republican ranks, an in-depth study of the 2020 presidential vote by Aurelia Glass, David Madland, and Ruy Teixeira reveals that unions were indeed an electoral bulwark against the much-feared drift toward Trump.

Some journalists have studied union members’ votes through many elections—in my case, since the mid-1980s—to produce quick morning-after snapshots, relying on exit polls that are more accurate than the proverbial blind men’s descriptions of elephants, but sometimes not by much. The CAP study, by contrast, is based on two complementary gold standards of voting measurement: the 2020 Cooperative Election Study, whose sample is so large it permits an accurate measure of voter subgroups, and the American National Election Studies academic survey, from 2008 through 2020. The authors were also able to exclude non-employees from their study, and were thereby able to measure the difference between union and non-union workers more precisely than exit polls customarily do.

Here’s some of what they found:

  • Union women were 21 percentage points more likely than non-union women to vote for Biden, while union men were 13 points more likely than their non-union counterparts.
  • White union voters were 18 percentage points more likely to vote for Biden than white non-union voters, while Hispanic unionists were 13 points more likely to go for Biden. Black voters preferred Biden by such overwhelming margins that there was no significant difference due to union status.
  • College-educated unionists went for Biden at a rate 22 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, while working-class union members favored Biden by 6 percent more than working-class nonmembers. Among Hispanic working-class voters, the union margin over non-union voters was 16 points; among whites, just six points (though that six-point margin certainly helped Biden carry Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania).

Just a glance at these numbers makes clear the toll that 70 years of declining union strength has taken on the Democrats’ electoral prospects. If the unionized workforce constituted 20 percent of the overall U.S. workforce, as it did 40 years ago—let alone the 35 percent it did in the middle of the last century—Democrats would be winning elections by far larger margins.

Meyerson notes that “unions now have an approval rating of 68 percent (the highest it’s been since 1965), and though their eclipse is one significant reason why economic inequality has soared in recent decades,” and concludes:

As Democrats ponder how to win more support among white and Hispanic working-class voters in particular, the ability of unions to produce more Democratic voters in those groups shows that the appeals of white supremacy and the war on wokeness can be countered in part by the kind of clear economic messaging that unions deliver. Plainly, Democrats themselves can’t deliver such messages as credibly as unions do. When unions speak to members through shop stewards and through friends at the worksite, the message isn’t being delivered by a Democratic establishment that some see as culturally alien and disrespectful. It’s being delivered by one’s peers.

Such messengers are needed now more than ever. The exit polls that I wrote about in the 1980s showed a substantially wider gap between working-class white union members and nonmembers than the six-point margin that divided them in 2020. That, though, was before the decades of economic stagnation and abandonment that befell this group of voters, before they fell prey to deaths of despair and right-wing media (Limbaugh, Fox, social). Democrats can’t do much about that right-wing media, but, as the Biden administration is the first since Harry Truman’s to realize, they had better do their damnedest to bolster unions any way they can.

In addition, unions also provide a significant source of election worker manpower favoring Democrats. Restoring their strength will also energize Democratic GOTV, which can make a pivotal difference in close elections.

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