US candidates rekindle labor debate. A new chapter for unions?

Unions in America Infographic

Infographic and story by K. Patricia Bouweraerts.

What’s up, when out of the blue, political candidates raise an issue that has been ignored for nearly two or three decades as if it has been a major talking point all along?

All this attention about revitalizing unions may simply be a scholarly side-trip. Or, it might be a real shift that influences the way wages and benefits are negotiated across a wide swath of industries. There will most likely be a barrage of media bites through November 2020. However, it could also be the start of a new chapter in organized labor’s story. After all, guilds and unions have been an integral part of American history since the 1700s.

Now, a half-dozen candidates in the Democratic presidential field are featuring unions as a central topic, according to the Associated Press, and the campaign workers of four prominent contenders are themselves organizing, wrote Lissandra Villa on

Patricia Bouweraerts Author Byline

Looking more closely at these events, a set of cultural and economic currents have been leading to the re-energized discussion of unions’ role in the U.S. economy. The factors leading to increased attention on labor include the following:

  • Political strategies are playing out to target specific groups of voters
  • Inequality is becoming a top concern in the public eye
  • The working and middle classes form a receptive audience for labor topics
  • Psychological tendency leans to joining a group to reduce uncertainty
  • Demographic trends in the workforce favor greater approval of unions
  • Opinion about organized labor is positive in a number of demographic groups

These elements have the potential to affect the future of collective bargaining, or at least revive the focus on labor issues during this election cycle and beyond.

Political events lead to renewed discussion of unions

Steve Rosenthal wrote on that U.S. presidential candidates haven’t talked at length about unions since the 1984 primaries, when Democratic challengers of former Vice President Walter Mondale criticized him for being the candidate of “special interests” after he was endorsed by the AFL-CIO. In addition, President Reagan had set an anti-union precedent when he fired more than 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 and replaced them with newly hired staffers.

So, for more than thirty years politicians have rarely brought up the subject of organized labor. In addition, union membership overall has been declining, especially so in the private sector.

Statistic: Number of union members in the United States from 2000 to 2018 (in millions) | Statista

Find more statistics at Statista

In 2016, there was a shift — candidates again began to express support for unions more openly.

“However, during the general election, Clinton took her union support for granted, never making the traditional Democratic presidential candidate visits to a UAW hall in battleground Michigan; to a steelworker hall in battleground Pennsylvania; or, famously, any visits at all to battleground Wisconsin, which had a strong union tradition,” Rosenthal added. “Clinton went on to lose all three states to Trump, which won him the election.”

Campaign strategists for the current election cycle have likely taken all of this to heart.

Time reported in June that now for the first time in history, presidential-level campaign staffs are themselves organizing. Campaign workers of four Democratic candidates are affiliating with four different unions, and receiving the apparent blessing of their bosses. Rep. Eric Swalwell’s staff is choosing Teamsters Local 238, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has selected the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2320, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ staff members are affiliating with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro’s workers with the Campaign Workers’ Guild.

In fact, the Campaign Workers’ Guild was newly launched in 2017.

“As far as the Campaign Workers Guild can tell, 2018 was the first election in which any electoral campaign unionized,” Villa wrote. “Randy Bryce, former Speaker Paul Ryan’s last Democratic challenger, was the first to have a unionized campaign staff in 2018. But this cycle has placed a larger spotlight on unionizing within campaigns as higher-profile campaigns have decided to pursue it.”

In the month leading up to Rosenthal’s May 21 article, five top presidential candidates referred to unions more than a combined total of 100 times on social media channels, he wrote. Rosenthal added that in addition to the candidates promoting labor issues on their social media pages, some have also highlighted their families’ working-class roots, or gone as far as to name the decline of unions as an issue on par with climate change. Six candidates attended and spoke at the National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas, co-hosted by the Center for American Progress and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Historically, Republican politicians have at times even supported public sector fire fighter and police unions — first responders are extensions of U.S. troops, and represent law and order. When Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker reduced benefits and collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees in 2011, firefighters and police officers were exempted, wrote Eleanor Clift on She explained that when crime increased in the late 1960s, Republicans had embraced the issue of law and order, but now may pull back as a response to public attention recently focused on excessive force.

Political identity doesn’t affect perceived socioeconomic status

It is widely understood that working-class voters impacted the 2016 presidential election.

Conversely, the public opinion poll firm, Gallup, Inc. has found that voters’ political party does not influence their perceived socioeconomic status.

“The fact that political identity doesn’t affect subjective social class is important, given the extraordinary importance of partisanship on so much else that shows up in our data,” Gallup explained. “In other words, for people with the same socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, being a Democrat doesn’t make one more likely than being a Republican to identify as working class. Nor does being a Republican make one more likely than being a Democrat to identify as upper-middle or upper class.”

Inequality becomes major problem for society to tackle

Increasing disparity between the rich and poor is becoming a leading cause for uneasiness in the public eye and among experts.

One irony regarding class in America was reported by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“The U.S.A. is more economically unequal than virtually every other industrialized country,” reported Manstead in the SPSP. “At the same time, the perceived degree of social mobility is greater in the U.S.A. than in other countries — although in reality social mobility is actually lower in the U.S.A. (and indeed in the U.K.) than in many other industrialized countries.”

Most people would like classes to be more equal, but they also compare themselves closely with those around them, wrote Adam Waytz on Reenergized focus on inequality arose shortly after the Great Recession, such as with the Occupy movement in 2011.

“The more noticeable status disparities are, the more concerned with status people become, and the differences between the haves and have-nots have been extremely pronounced during the economic recession of recent years,” Waytz wrote in 2009.

He added that the discussion will persist as inequality continues to broaden. Individuals are highly motivated to raise their social status. In the morning getting ready to face the world, individuals do not think about academic analyses, they think about where they stand in comparison to those they know, Waytz wrote.

“Between CEO and employee, quarterback and wide receiver, husband and wife, status looms large,” he added.

A number of experts credit guilds and unions with helping to create a more equitable society, and to catapult low- and middle-income workers to the middle class. A thriving middle class is thought to be beneficial for the economy.

“There is increasingly widespread agreement among economists that one of the main reasons for the squeezing of the middle class has been the weakening of labor,” Rosenthal wrote.

There appears to be a disconnect here, where inequality is concerned.

“While in many minds there may be a lower class and an upper class in American society today, relatively few Americans at any income or education level like to think of themselves as being in those classes,” according to Gallup.

Why do people participate in groups, or join unions?

In the study “Why Do People Join Groups? Three Motivational Accounts from Social Psychology,” social scientists found that the Uncertainty–identity theory best explains why people participate in all types of groups.

Illustration of Architect Working

“Uncertainty–identity theory argues that people have a basic need to reduce uncertainty about themselves, their attributes, and their place in the world, and that cognitive processes associated with group identification reduce such uncertainty,” wrote Michael A. Hogg, Zachary Hohman, and Jason E. Rivera.

More specifically, why do people join organized labor groups?

Reasons Employees Give for Joining a Union,” was published by the law firm Fisher Phillips. The top five reasons the firm sees most often includes the following in top-down order:

  • Favoritism; inconsistent disciplinary action or unfair advantages for certain employees
  • Non-competitive pay and benefits
  • Lack of concern about safety
  • Loss of respect; disciplining employees in front of others and assigning blame before getting the facts
  • Ignoring employee complaints

“Give employees orders without explanations, or ask them to perform jobs that they are not suited to do, and they begin to feel more like a number, as opposed to a valuable member of a productive team,” wrote attorneys Michael Mitchell and Matthew Simpson.

Demographics favor increased labor organization

Demographic trends may work to strengthen union membership. It has been widely reported that Millennials are risk-averse, having come of age during the Great Recession, and other population groups fear discrimination. Unions typically address job security and encourage fair hiring practices.

“In 2015, Black workers had a union membership rate of 13.6 percent, compared with 10.8 percent for Whites, 9.8 percent for Asians, and 9.4 percent for Hispanics,” the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. “The high unionization rate for Blacks partially reflects their heavy representation in the public sector: in 2015, Black workers accounted for 11.7 percent of total employment but 15.3 percent of government employment.”

The BLS also reported that in 2015, men’s rate of union membership was 11.5 percent, and women’s at 10.6 percent — not all that different — although there are more men in private-sector unions, and more women members of public-sector organizations.

Researchers in the U.S. and U.K. have found that unions bring about a more family-friendly work environment, wrote Tom Jacobs on This factor would especially affect individuals of child-bearing age.

“Union-organized workplaces are ‘more likely to have parental leave, paid family leave, child care and job-sharing policies’ than their non-unionized counterparts,” Jacobs wrote. “On the other hand, union workers are ‘less likely to report the availability of flexible working hours and work-at-home options.’”

Millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — may now be raising young children. The Pew Research Center reported in April 2018 that this group became the largest generation in the labor force in 2016, and makes up about 35 percent, more than a third of the workforce. Gen Xers, at 33 percent, and Boomers, at 25 percent, are also large groups of workers, although immigrants will be adding numbers to the Millennial demographic, Pew wrote.

Also, older and diverse Americans typically perceive discrimination in hiring practices.

A significant workforce trend is that more mature staffers are working longer. In 2014, about 40 percent of individuals who were 55 or older were either working or trying to find employment, according to the BLS.

“That number, known as a labor force participation rate, is expected to increase fastest for the oldest segments of the population — most notably, people ages 65 to 74 and 75 and older — through 2024,” the BLS added. “In contrast, participation rates for most other age groups in the labor force aren’t projected to change much over the 2014–24 decade.”

The BLS projects that in 2020 the workforce will be 12.1 percent ages 16–24, 24.3 percent ages 55 and above, and 63 percent ages 25–54. Thus, nearly a quarter of workers will be 55 or older, a considerable percentage. In addition, workers’ diversity continues to expand.

“Whites’ share of the labor force is projected to decline and Blacks’ and Asians’ shares are projected to rise over the decade (2014–2024),” the BLS posted.

The BLS projects the annual growth rate in the labor force during this time will be .2 percent for Whites, 1 percent for Blacks, 2.1 percent for Asians and 2.5 percent for those of Hispanic origin.

Approval of organized labor is up

Washington Post reporter Danielle Paquette wrote that voters are warming up to labor unions.

“Though union ranks are shrinking, acceptance among conservatives seems to be rising, per the (2017) Gallup survey, (which polled 1,000 people nationwide between August 2 and 6,” Paquette wrote. “Forty-two percent of Republicans said they approved of unions, a jump from 2011, when only 26 percent of Republicans showed support. Among Democrats, 81 percent of Democrats approved of unions, compared to 78 percent in 2011. Support among Independents has also climbed, reaching 61 percent from 52 percent six years ago.”

Paquette added that President Donald Trump ran as an economic populist who is against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — the AFL-CIO is also opposed to this treaty — and that one of the top concerns of working-class Republicans’ is global trade associated with moving jobs out of the country.

U.S. Army veteran Andrew Dillow answered the question “Are Republicans for or against worker and labor unions,” on

“I am in a union and I am a Republican,” Dillow wrote. “I, surely, do not oppose the union that I am in. Most of the union members at the plant where I work are not Democrats, but most of the engineers and lower management people are. I like having a bargaining team that goes to the table every five years to negotiate the contract, which includes pay raises, health care, hours, advancement, training, and everything else, all written out in black and white.”

Dillow has worked in both non-union and union plants, and union membership made a positive difference for him.

“Unions make things democratic and fair for everyone,” he wrote.

Rosenthal also noted that Millennials are voicing more positive views of labor organizations.

“Support for unions is growing, particularly among Millennials,” he wrote. “An August 2018 Gallup survey found a full 62 percent of Americans approved of unions, a 15-year high for that question. Support levels are even higher among young Americans: Sixty-eight percent hold a favorable view of unions, compared to just 46 percent who feel the same way about corporations, according to Pew Research.”

Occupational health and climate change may present wild cards in the union debate

There is a unique connection between unions and sustainability.

“In ‘Green Unions in a Grey World,’ historian Victor Silverman of Pomona College writes that ‘labor environmentalism’ holds the promise of a new progressive political synthesis,” Jacobs explained. “Silverman concedes that labor unions have traditionally believed ‘more jobs, more goods and more wealth, whatever the environmental cost, are the solutions to workers’ needs.’ But he notes occupational health and safety is another important issue in labor negotiations and argues that support for a sustainable environment is a logical extension of that concern.”

Silverman lists empowerment of workers and protection of a community as mutually beneficial aims of the labor movement. Together, they translate into how companies address sustainability.

“In a sense, workers and the environment have a common enemy in the profit-at-any-price mind-set that focuses exclusively on the bottom line,” Jacobs added. “Could they also find a common purpose?”

It is becoming apparent that sustainability and inequality are issues of rising importance in the public discourse, and therefore these topics have the potential to affect change in not just American thought, but action as well.

Unions, or union-like organizations, are in the position to play an instrumental role in facing the difficult challenges of our time — climate change and wealth disparity. At the very least, the topic of organized labor will help shape the outcome of America’s next election.


*Sources for infographic:

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