If Democrats and Republicans are looking for a new group to appeal to, it’s the labor union. Long derided and almost forgotten in political campaigns, bipartisan support for these worker associations’ is on the rise.
When the Pew Research Center released a poll about support for major institutions, most pundits focused on the partisan divide over colleges and the media. Churches and banks got a little attention, too. But the one that could have the biggest influence on the next several elections went virtually ignored: the labor union.
It probably doesn’t surprise you that nearly 60 percent of Democrats like labor unions, while only about 33 percent of Republicans concur. But that doesn’t tell even half the story.
Go back to 2010. Democrats were trying to pass Obamacare, and the Tea Party stormed the Republican Party. Back then, people didn’t think much of labor unions: Only 22 percent of Republicans liked unions in the polling data, while 65 percent disapproved. But now, support for unions among GOP voters has climbed to 33 percent. Republicans’ dislike of labor unions has dramatically fallen to 46 percent. The biggest jump in approval and drop in disapproval happened from 2016 to 2017.
Democrats weren’t so enamored with labor unions either back in 2010. Only 43 percent of Democrats liked unions back then, while 36 percent disliked them. Now 59 percent of Democrats approve and 22 percent disapprove.
Unions score the second highest approval rating for institutions among Democrats after colleges and universities. Republicans dislike other institutions like the media and colleges more than they do unions—a marked contrast to previous years.
Long ago, unions were much more respected by the public, but they were squeezed by politicians with right-to-work laws and became targets of propaganda. “Labor unions were always viewed as a form of socialism or hotbeds for revolution,” notes sociology Professor Randall Adams. “Private sector membership is less than 7 percent and continues to decline (was 50 percent in 1950s). Public sector is below 10 percent.”
Many think unions were only about money for members, but Dr. Adams points out that this is not the case: “The bargaining for higher wages only is misleading. A number of issues are decided through collective bargaining (i.e. seniority, scheduling, job descriptions and roles). It is a very complex effort, hence, long contracts.”
And it’s not just about Democrats and Republicans increasing their support for unions to get higher wages. “Historically, when the numbers were high, they had a significant social role,” says Dr. Adams. “However, technology has changed all our concepts and we prefer to bowl alone.” But now, perhaps they miss the camaraderie, the baseball leagues, picnics, parades, and communities created among workers, which you don’t see as often today but just enough to remind us of the way things were.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seem to have tapped into the sentiment of longing for the unions of the 1950s and opposition of free trade deals. The candidate in 2020 who can speak to this growing support for union wages and a sense of a unified community of workers will be the one who finds the country united behind him or her.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at email@example.com. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.