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Can we have political democracy without Trade Unionism?

Mon, May 4, 2015

By Victor G. Devinatz
International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, is a holiday celebrated annually throughout the world in honor of labor and the working classes. With the first official International Workers’ Day held on May 1, 1891 in tribute to Chicago’s Haymarket Riot on May 4, 1886, many early May Day demonstrations called for the eight-hour work day as one of the participants’ demands. While US trade unions attained this gain as well as many others for workers throughout much of the twentieth century, many of these achievements are in jeopardy on May Day 2015 with union density standing at 11.1 percent. Moreover, not only did trade unions achieve economic improvements but they also made advancements in politics, encouraging political participation among their members and other workers. With the legitimate fear that trade unions will continue to weaken and potentially even face extinction, one must ask: Can political democracy exist without viable trade unions?
As researchers and commentators have noted, a class bias exists in voter turnout meaning that upper class voters (those from higher socioeconomic classes) are much more likely to vote than those from the working class (those from lower socioeconomic classes). At the income distribution extremes, Sean McElwee points out in “Why the Voting Gap Matters” that research conducted by Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens indicates that 99 percent of the top one percent of income earners voted in the 2008 election while for those earning less than $10,000 annually the figure was 49 percent. So what can trade unions do to minimize this problem?
Because many union members (as well as non-union workers) have historically been from the lower-income classes, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) through its Committee on Political Education and its affiliated unions have sought to increase lower-income voter turnout through educational campaigns, voter registration and “get out the vote” drives to encourage their members and other workers to cast ballots for candidates that best represent their economic interests. Because the US two-party system places third parties at a distinct disadvantage, unions have historically supported the Democratic Party, which tends to be more liberal (or pro-worker) on economic issues, than the Republican Party. Since 1995, the AFL-CIO has devoted an increasing amount of resources to politics, donating approximately 90 percent of its political funding to Democratic Party candidates.
According to Richard Freeman’s research, US union members are more likely to vote than their non-union counterparts by approximately 12 percentage points. This trend of union voters having a greater likelihood of casting ballots holds for other countries as well. In a study of 32 nations, Patrick Flavin and Benjamin Radcliff discovered that union members are 2.4 percentage points more likely to vote than those who are not union members. These researchers also found a “spillover” effect meaning that in nations where union density was higher, workers who were non-union members also were more likely to vote. Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler have confirmed Freeman’s results finding that union members are significantly more likely to cast ballots than non-union members in elections for the US presidency and for Congress. They also discovered that citizens who reside in states with stronger unions have a higher likelihood of voting. Finally, Leighley and Nagler determined that voter turnout in the 2004 elections would have been nearly three percentage points higher if union density had remained at its 1964 level when US unions were near their peak strength.
Since research has demonstrated that unions stimulate increased voter turnout, much of which is from the lower and middle income classes, if unions continue to weaken (or even become virtually nonexistent), labor organizations may find it increasingly difficult to devote sufficient resources to politics. If this happens, class bias in voting will probably increase with more affluent, rather than working class and middle class, voters going to the polls. Furthermore, McElwee points out that increased voter turnout among lower and middle income groups leads to the adoption of more economically liberal policies. Thus, if these voters do not cast ballots, the Democratic Party will adopt more conservative economic positions.
This may be the reason behind the Republican Party’s continuing attack on US trade unions. If more right to work laws are passed, as recently occurred in Wisconsin in March 2015, and the collection of “fair share” fees for public employee unions are disallowed (as proposed in Illinois in February 2015), labor organizations will lose membership and money for funding political activities. With unions no longer involved in politics, this will remove the strongest advocate for workers and lower income groups from the political process. Additionally, it will lead to fewer low and middle income voters casting ballots resulting in the polity becoming increasingly dominated by more affluent voters. Who then will represent the positions of these less prosperous voters? If such a scenario occurs, a representative political democracy will no longer exist in this country.
Dr. Victor G. Devinatz is Distinguished Professor of Management, specializing in labor relations, and the Hobart and Marian Gardner Hinderliter Endowed Professor (2014-2015) at Illinois State University. He can be contacted at vgdevin@ilstu.edu.

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