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Unions Increase Political Power for Poor People

A study shows how much unions can help working people

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by Guest Post on
Oct 14, 2020

This article was written by the IBEW Media Center.

It's generally assumed that politicians are more responsive to their well-heeled and wealthy constituents than they are to the poor and working class. But a new study shows how unions can shift that balance.

“This research shows yet again that unions aren't just good for their members, they're good for all working people," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.

Researchers Michael Becher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and Daniel Stegmueller at Duke University looked at large data sets from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and U.S. Census' American Community Survey. The CCES is a survey of more than 50,000 people administered by YouGov, a global public opinion and data company.

Becher and Stegmueller asked respondents if they supported legislation that resulted in U.S. House votes on the Dodd-Frank Act, the Affordable Care Act (and attempts to repeal it), the minimum wage increase, the ratification of the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Taking that data and looking at income levels and union membership in each congressional district, they concluded that lawmakers do indeed tend to be more responsive to their high-income constituents.

While the preferences of those in the upper income distribution have a probability of 13.5 percentage points of being reflected in Congressional votes, it's only 1.6 points for those in the bottom third of the income ladder. In other words, the more money someone has, the more likely they are to get what they want from their congressional representative.

But a strong union presence changes that.

"We estimate that an … increase in unionization increases responsiveness towards the poor by about 6-8 percentage points (and it somewhat reduces responsiveness to higher incomes)," the authors wrote. "As a result, in districts with relatively strong unions legislators are about equally responsive to rich and poor Americans.

"It may appear that unequal democracy is an inherent feature of capitalism. In contrast, we argue that organized labor can be an effective source of political equality in the United States even in times of high economic inequality."

Becher and Stegmueller also noted that it isn't just the shared interests of the working class that matters. It's the organizing.

"What matters is that stronger local unions in a congressional district pose a credible mobilization threat," they wrote.

As the Economic Policy Institute noted in a report on how unions help working people, the ability to join together provides for working people what trade and business organizations do for owners and CEOs. They give working families a collective voice.

"What our members and other working people do matters just as much as that of managers and owners," Stephenson said. "And unions provide a place for these voices to be heard, whether it's in our communities or in the halls of Congress."

Conversely, the decline of unions impacts more than just those covered by a collective bargaining agreement. This was noted in the study as well.

"The sizable impact of strong unions might also explain why unions remain under sustained attack by conservative groups," the authors wrote.

The deterioration of unions has coincided with the erosion of a number of workers' issues from overtime pay and workers compensation programs to the decline of the real value of the minimum wage, which is lower today than it was in 1968, according to EPI.

Attacks on unions have only worsened under the Trump administration. Most recently, the NLRB has dismissed cases against employers charged with firing COVID-19 whistleblowers and refusing to bargain over safety and health issues. In June, it issued a decision that expands the right of employers to search workers' cars and other belongings on company property. It has also allowed employers to kick organizers out of public spaces, shielded corporations when franchises mistreat employees, banned certain informational pickets and forbid union apparel at work, among a host of other issues.

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