Did the Decline of Labor Finally Kill the Democrats?

The election results got me thinking about my Grandpa Hy.  Grandpa was a labor organizer and later a union official in the garment industry where most of the members lacked college degrees. He was a loyal Democrat and I wondered what he would have made of all the people without college degrees voting for Trump.

The biggest shock was Wisconsin, which has trended Republican for three decades.  And here’s what else has happened over that time: The percentage of unionized workers in Wisconsin dropped from 17% in 2000 to 8.3 in 2015.

Imagine a “counter-factual” world in which unions hadn’t declined in influence over the last twenty years.  For one thing, wages would probably not have declined as much so some of the economic frustration may have dissipated.

Politically, a stronger labor union movement would have kept Democrats from turning free-trade. It’s really odd that voters who are suspicious of trade deals just elected a Republican House, Senate, and president since they have been far more supportive of free trade than Democrats. But it is true that the Democrats have become split, in part because labor’s influence over the party has waned. If unions had been stronger, I sort of doubt either Obama or Hillary would have advocated free trade deals quite the same way.

Most important, labor unions “at their best” were institutions that stitched together working class aspirations for people of different backgrounds.  They preached that white and black workers, from different parts of the country, had common interest in fighting for certain policies. The workers might hear from  Rush Limbaugh that it was blacks’ fault, but their labor unions would teach them that it was the company’s fault. Labor unions gave a progressive grounding for white blue collar workers, teaching a generation that government activism could be useful. Quite often, the union hall itself became a way for people from different backgrounds to forge alliances. And they provided vehicles for human connection and an antidote to individual isolation.

I say “at their best” because, especially early on, some unions were notoriously racist. But the larger industrial unions were simultaneously progressive on race relations and ardently defensive of worker’s wages and rights.

There are many reasons unions have weakened including the decline of manufacturing, the rise of the service economy and passage of laws making labor organizing harder.  And it’s probably impossible to reverse these trends. But this election serves as a reminder of just how central they were to the Democratic party’s strength with non-college educated voters.

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.