Labor spotlight

Election 2016

Results show vulnerability of today’s working class

Hundreds of Wisconsin's public employees and supporters pack the Capitol Isaac Steiner

Hundreds of Wisconsin's public employees and supporters pack the Capitol in Madison in March 2011 to protest a bill introduced by Gov. Scott Walker to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for most public-sector workers.

Chart comparing Michigan and Wisconsin Labor Statistics Hillary Clinton was endorsed by most major unions, and organized labor’s campaign spending — much of it for Clinton and other Democrats — hit unprecedented levels. But more working-class men and women, including many in union households, voted for her opponent.

Neil Gross, a sociology professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, wrote in a New York Times op-ed column in August that organized labor, a shadow of its robust self in the post-World War II era, can no longer powerfully channel the working-class vote.

“Union decline has left the working class politically and economically vulnerable, and it’s this vulnerability Mr. Trump has been able to exploit,” Gross wrote.

His article proved to be prescient.

The story of a battered labor movement, and what it has reaped, may best be told by looking at the country’s industrial Midwest, which played a pivotal role in the presidential election.

“The reason unions have lost some of their stature is not just political maneuvers from the top but also an erosion of the manufacturing base,” said Gross.

In the 1960s, Michigan and Wisconsin, to take two examples, had robust manufacturing sectors that offered unionized jobs, with good wages and benefits, to blue-collar workers. With globalization, many of those industries went overseas, and fewer of the manufacturing jobs that remain are held by unionized workers.

If the Midwest hadn’t experienced such significant losses, Gross said, it’s “unlikely Trump would have been able to win over white working-class voters in the way he did and unions would have been much more effective in calling him out.”

Deindustrialization’s toll on unions in Michigan and Wisconsin was capped by legislative assaults by Republican governors who came to power in 2011.

In Wisconsin, where 30 percent of workers belonged to unions 40 years ago, Gov. Scott Walker crushed the state’s labor movement. In 2011, Walker stripped the state’s public-sector unions of their right to bargain collectively and to require dues from members. In 2015, he made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, weakening the private-sector unions as well. The share of unionized workers in the state plummeted from 14.2 percent in 2010 to 8.3 percent five years later. Wisconsin now has a smaller percentage of union members than the national average.

The state went to Trump, with exit polls putting Clinton ahead by only a single percentage point in union households.

“If you’re in situations where you’re fighting defensive battles all the time and you can’t really win for your membership, then when you say let’s vote for so and so it has less punch,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “In Wisconsin, where the unions have been hurt and defeated, the power of an endorsement is much, much less. In the Midwest, that’s been the case in a number of places.”

The story of labor’s shrinking power also unfolded dramatically in Michigan, the heart of the U.S. auto industry. In 1964, a whopping 45 percent of Michigan workers belonged to unions. Today, the United Auto Workers is a shell of its former self. It has accepted a tiered wage structure that protected senior workers at the expense of newcomers, so even many unionized autoworkers now struggle to make a living wage. Nonunion autoworkers — now the majority in the industry — earn even less. The final blow came in 2012 when Gov. Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation.

Michigan also went to Trump, with exit polls giving Clinton only a 13 percent advantage among union households.

Indeed, the four states that have passed right-to-work legislation since 2012 — Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia — all went to Trump.

“West Virginia went from 30 percent union density to 12 percent in recent years,” said Lichtenstein. “The consciousness raising of being in a union is still there, but there are many fewer unionists.”

Lichtenstein said workers still identify with unions where the labor movement is more vital, even if the states are right to work, such as in Nevada. “The key variable is how dynamic and active and winning the union is,” he said.

California and New York, where the labor movement is strongest, voted by significant margins for Hillary Clinton.

The challenge now facing the labor movement is how to reconnect with alienated working-class men and women, said Gross.

“Unions of all sorts, public and private, are going to have to rally the troops,” said Lichtenstein.

While no one expected the messenger to be the president-elect, the 2016 election results show that a message of economic justice resonates with a wide cross-section of Americans.

Some predict that once the reality of a Trump presidency sinks in, there will be an opportunity to mobilize people around the kind of policies targeting income inequality that have always been organized labor’s bread and butter.

“People are most likely to really get involved when they have some expectations that their lives are going to improve and then those expectations are suddenly dashed,” Gross said. The resulting frustration may well be “a catalyst to a more significant mobilization than we’ve seen in recent years,” he said.

The labor movement’s ability to harness that energy, Gross said, will at least in part determine its success in rebuilding.

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