March 15, 2021

Unions: Power Houses of Political Engagement

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos

Sociology Doctoral Student, Rutgers University

It’s no secret that elections are heavily influenced by spending and donations from wealthy individuals, corporations, and various special interest groups. In the 2020 presidential election a less obvious key player in the political field garnered plenty of attention: labor unions. Given that many unions represent blue-collar workers – a key demographic for any presidential campaign – their endorsements of candidates are widely sought after among both Democrats and Republicans.

In the 2020 election, Joe Biden managed to nail down several endorsements from large unions, dealing a blow to Trump who in 2016 relied precisely on white, working-class voters for his win. However, official endorsements are not all that unions have to offer the candidate of their choice; they also have money. For instance, the Service Employees International Union – with close to 2 million members – launched a $150 million nationwide campaign to help elect Joe Biden in 2020, and the Laborers Union also spent more than half a million dollars in independent expenditures for Biden alone.

While unions did play a big role in the 2020 election, their political engagement is nothing new. The strength of unions has always been heavily reliant on policy and legislation around labor, as unions continue to struggle with what they see as weaknesses in U.S. labor legislation that give more power to employers or corporations than to workers’ rights.

As such, unions have a particular interest in getting labor-friendly politicians elected to local, state, and federal office. Given the Democratic Party’s strong ideological tie to labor rights, unions tend to favor Democratic candidates: in the 2008 elections, 92% of unions’ political donations went to Democrats.

This isn’t uniformly true across all unions. The Police Protective League, for example, sees Democrats intent on “defunding” the police as one of their biggest threats going into the 2022 elections, and would likely opt to support Republican candidates or more moderate Democrats.

In line with unions’ political engagement as organizations, research also shows that individuals who are members of unions are more likely to be politically engaged than those who are not. Not only are union members more likely to vote than their non-union counterparts, but they are also more likely to spend time in their communities encouraging other people to vote.

However, union members are also overrepresented among public sector employees, a group of workers already known to be more engaged in both political and civic activities. Scholars have tied this relationship to the theory of Public Service Motivation (PSM), which suggests that individuals who are intrinsically motivated to be engaged in politics and civic activities self-select into public sector jobs where they can exercise that motivation. This begs the question of whether it is union membership in itself that contributes to individuals’ engagement in politics and various civic activities, or whether it is a certain type of individual that self-selects into public sector jobs where they also often happen to be union members.

In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, authors Jasmine Kerrissey, Tiamba Wilkerson, and Nathan Meyers dig deeper to answer this very question. They set out to understand the separate and combined effects of public sector employment and union membership on individuals’ participation in political activities and civic activities like service work.

Using data from the Current Population Survey’s Civic Engagement and Volunteer Supplements, they find that public sector employees who are union members have much higher odds of participating in political activities than their non-union counterparts. For service work, however, union membership has a lesser impact. This indicates that while already engaged individuals may self-select into public sector jobs, being in a union still leads to higher political engagement, indicating just how effective unions are as political organizations.

Undoubtedly, unions will continue to be under attack from corporations and politicians alike who seek to weaken workers’ rights. Considering the significant voter demographic they represent and the power they wield in the political sphere, unions will likely remain strong political players in many more elections to come. Especially now that police unions feel increasingly threatened by Democratic agendas and the partisan divide for such unions may be becoming blurrier, it will be interesting to see how they are able to shape politics on the local, state, and federal levels in the coming years. 

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