How Union Decline Helped Break the Blue Wall by Nicky Riordan
Much attention has been paid to Rust Belt states, formerly considered Democratic strongholds and an integral part of the blue wall that Hillary Clinton needed to win the presidency. Debate is ongoing about the causes of the shocking flip from blue to red of states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, but the overwhelming consensus so far concludes that feelings of economic anxiety paired with education level show the clearest correlation. Although many factors played a part in Donald Trump’s sweep of the Rust Belt, one underestimated element of the 2016 election is how the waning power of labor unions in the Midwest contributed to those two important factors, and led to an important shift in how the white working class viewed the priorities of the Democratic Party.
As recently as the 1980’s, industrial labor unions in the Midwest had millions of members which were bound not only by cause, but by class solidarity. Unions provided an avenue for white working class people without a traditional education or political background to be involved in the process and to find economic stability. White union members voted Democratic at a rate 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts during this time. The combination of working class support of the Democratic Party and the belief that the economy had a place for them worked in Democrats’ favor for decades in the region.
Labor union participation in the United States as a whole has declined significantly in recent years. Only about 12 percent of workers belong to a union today down from 20 percent in the early 1980’s. Private sector union participation is down by 10 percent during the same time period. The Midwest has not been immune to this shift, and although there are varied causes to the decline, the effect of Right to Work (RTW) laws passed by Republican legislatures in the region cannot be underestimated.
Decades of empirical research have found an inverse relationship between RTW laws and union density. Perhaps more importantly, the decline in labor unions has contributed to one-third of the increase in wage inequality for men since 1973. It is no secret that this decline in union participation, economic stability, and reduced Democratic influence in Midwestern states has been of benefit to Republican candidates.
In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was expected to win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Of the 81 counties nationwide that flipped from Obama to Trump, many were in the Midwestern Rust Belt states. Indeed, Clinton won union households by only 8 percent, the worst showing of support from this demographic since Walter Mondale. In contrast, Obama won union households by 18 percent overall in 2012.
With the decline in union participation and increase in economic anxiety for those without a traditional education, came a surprising shift from regional class solidarity among union and non-union working class households to racial and national solidarity. The decline of unions and wages in the Midwest exacerbated the feeling that the economy itself was getting worse during the past 8 years, although in the counties that voted twice for Obama but flipped to Trump, unemployment was at 9.1 percent at the time of the election- a rate identical to the rest of the country. Donald Trump was uniquely able to leverage the political and social vacuum that union influence left in the Midwest to change the conversation.
The primary theme of Donald Trump’s campaign was the need for cultural and economic isolation. Through this framework, Trump found it effective to equate the “dangers” of globalization and immigration with economic anxiety. Where the strong unions of the past may have provided a stronger foundation of economic stability and an alternate narrative to Trump’s argument that the economy had left them behind, Midwestern voters found solace in the argument that the white working class was last in line.
According to USA Today, the population of all counties that flipped from Obama to Trump was 78 percent white. Moreover, Wisconsin exit polls from CNN showed a clear pattern: 62 percent of respondents who agreed that international trade “takes American jobs” voted for Trump, as did 78 percent of those who agreed that minorities are favored in the United States. Exit polls across the Rust Belt mirrored these sentiments. Trump also performed especially well among voters without a college degree, an important indicator of economic mobility, given the shrinking share of jobs in the Midwest to workers without a degree. In contrast, Hillary Clinton won the state of Nevada by a large margin with the help of the Culinary Union, a primarily Hispanic labor union, proving that a strong and diverse union movement is still a viable political engine for Democratic candidates.
The ability of Donald Trump to shift formerly Democratic union strongholds in the Midwest to Republican votes relies primarily on the insight that a decrease in union participation and influence provides an opportunity to equate economic anxiety with racial and national solidarity. Whereas unions created an environment of class solidarity and helped Midwestern white working class people to secure living wages and excellent benefits even without a formal education, recent RTW laws have reduced union engagement and contributions and therefore the bargaining power of unions overall. If Democratic candidates cannot build a coalition without Midwestern states, they will be hard pressed to win future presidential elections without an effort to roll back RTW laws and rebuild union participation and economic prosperity in the region.
Nicky Riordan, M.A. Peace and Justice Studies, is Public Policy Manager at Feeding San Diego