In the past decade unions have greatly improved the way they do electoral politics, and if they hadn’t, Barack Obama would probably never have been our president.
Though uneven from union to union, 16 years ago unions stopped simply giving money to their endorsed candidates and focused more intensely on member education and mobilization. Since then they have gotten increasingly more sophisticated in “year-round politics” to involve their members in specific legislative campaigns, not just elections; in targeting local and congressional races; and in neighbor-to-neighbor political education and mobilization.
Without that transformational change, which is still absent in far too many unions, organized labor would have been crushed last year when a string of Republican governors directly attacked public-sector unions and indirectly undermined private-sector unionism as well. What’s more, without that change the Democrats would never have moved (slightly, but importantly) in a more progressive direction and elected a president and a very large Congressional majority in 2008.
The American labor movement never gets the credit it deserves, either in the Democratic Party or the national media, and my guess is that that’s a class thing. The ruling class has always hated unions, even in times when, unlike today, they did not feel entirely free to express that hatred. But unionism, even now when it is strongest in middle-class occupations like teaching, goes against the cultural grain of elite middle-class individualism and its self-satisfying notions of meritocracy.
Unions’ political importance is declining as its membership is steadily reduced, in both absolute and relative terms. But last week nearly one of five voters nationally came from union households, and they voted 58/40 for President Obama. And this national result underestimates unions’ political importance – first in explaining why solid blue states are solidly blue and then in how crucial unions are in Midwest battleground states.
In large solid blues like California and Illinois union households provided more than one of four voters; in New York and New Jersey, one of three, and they vote overwhelmingly Democratic – 67% in California, for example. In the Midwest battleground states, the size of the union-household vote dropped precipitously from 2008 (reflecting the loss of union jobs), but they are all still well above the national average, and they went 2-to-1 for Obama in Michigan and Wisconsin and only a little less than that in Ohio. The exit polls did not ask a union-household question for Iowa and Minnesota voters, where they also have a very large presence, but it is significant that these abnormally white states (93% and 87% white, respectively, versus 72% nationally) produced abnormally strong votes for Obama (a majority in Iowa and 47% in Minnesota versus 39% of white voters nationally).
And this suggests the other reason union political power is so important to the Democratic Party and to the nation at large: unions are one of the few instruments for multiracial political organizing in a nation that the 2012 election demonstrated is as racially divided in its politics as ever. The union-household vote is so strongly Democratic because it includes such a high percentage of blacks and Latinos, but though we do not have numbers for 2012, we know that the one reliable thing that inclines white folks to vote for Democrats is being a union member and, to a lesser extent, living in a household with a union member.
It’s not like we have a lot of multiracial institutions, where people of different races and ethnicities get to know each other, mixing it up as they try to determine their common occupational and class interests. Unions are still a major resource for Democrats, and if Democratic politicians continue to distance themselves from this admittedly declining resource, a lot more will be lost than future elections.
Jack Metzgar of Chicago Working-Class Studies, author of Striking Steel, is the president of the national Working-Class Studies Association.