Republican Anti-Union Efforts Made a Difference on Election Day

Republican Anti-Union Efforts Made a Difference on Election Day
AP Photo/Morgan Lee

As election results rolled in the night of November 8, it became clearer and clearer that the Democratic “firewall” in the Midwest might not hold. While the Democratic presidential nominee had consistently won the popular votes in Wisconsin and Michigan since 1988 and 1992, respectively, Republican nominee Donald Trump would finish the night by narrowly winning both states. There are several reasons for these Democratic losses, but one major contributor is clear: successful Republican efforts to damage unions.

In just four years, from 2011 to 2015, Wisconsin union membership dropped from 13.5 percent of workers to just over 8 percent. Over the same period, Michigan saw its percentage of workers in unions drop from 17.6 percent to about 15 percent. This was no accident. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker bragged in 2015 that he “took on the unions and won.” He is right: Walker’s administration passed Act 10 in 2011 to eliminate substantive collective bargaining rights from most public employees. And Walker continued his attack in 2015, signing a so-called “right-to-work” law that forces unions to provide services to non-members without payment. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a similar “right-to-work” law in 2012 to weaken his own state’s unions. 

These attacks on unions do not just lower workers’ wages and help business interests. They also change the way the political process works, especially for people with lower incomes and less education. 

Unions are key in encouraging working-class people to get involved in the political process. Collective bargaining brings democracy to the workplace, preparing workers to participate in the political process more broadly. Union efforts to educate voters and get out the vote help to close the gap in turnout between the rich and the poor. As a result, union members are not only more likely to vote, but also more likely to contact officials, attend public meetings, and take collective action. Union effects on turnout also extend beyond members: One study found that self-identified members of the working class as well as people of color are more likely to vote when unions campaign in their districts.  

It is therefore unsurprising that, with weakened unions, turnout fell in Wisconsin and Democratic strongholds in Michigan, likely aiding Trump's win in both states. Michigan, which was decided by about 10,500 votes, lost approximately 49,000 union members between 2011 and 2015. Wisconsin, where Clinton lost by roughly 22,000 votes, lost approximately 117,000 union members in the same time period. 

Candidates and their positions certainly matter in elections, but organizations that bring people into the political process and turn them out to vote also matter a great deal. Despite Donald Trump’s success in winning over more of the white working class, his success was greatest among non-union members. Exit polls show that even as union support for the Democratic nominee fell from 2012 to 2016, union households still voted for Clinton over Trump by wider margins than non-union households in WisconsinMichigan, and nationwide

Considering these facts as well as the broader impact that unions can have on campaigns, it seems plausible that had unions maintained their strength from 2012, Wisconsin and Michigan may not have turned in 2016. 

By contrast, consider Nevada, where union membership has remained largely steady since 2011. Unique features of Las Vegas’s casino industry, including union density built up through decades of organizing, helps to counteract the effects of Nevada’s long-standing right-to-work law. The Culinary Workers Union — an exemplar of the changing face of union membership, with 56 percent Latino and 55 percent women — led a massive voter turnout effort to support pro-worker candidates. Clinton won the state, while Democrats won two Republican-held U.S. House seats, elected the first Latina U.S. senator, and took back the state Assembly and state Senate. 

Despite these successes, Nevada was a much closer race than in 2012. If unions had been weakened to the degree they were in Wisconsin and Michigan, Nevada could have easily swung to Republicans as well. 

To be sure, unions’ impact on politics for working people did not stop on Election Day. Unions are one of the few interest groups that advocate for positions supported by the poor and middle class, providing a key counter-balance to wealthy special interests. When policymakers are debating if they should raise the minimum wage, increase access to health care, or reform the criminal-justice system, unions are an important voice for economic and social justice.

Unions also fight to protect our system of democracy. When conservative interest groups back “voter ID” laws that many states have used effectively to disenfranchise people of color, young people, and low-income people — including a law that may have also contributed to lower turnout in Wisconsin — unions stand up and fight to support access to the polls.

But unions’ support for working people has made them a target. And we can expect the new administration to take the lessons from Wisconsin and Michigan to heart and attack unions to clear the way for policies that exploit working people and benefit the wealthy. Progressives must stand in solidarity to protect unions and the right to organize — or else risk being further marginalized across the nation. 

Alex Rowell is a research assistant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. David Madland is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. 

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