How Labor Unions Increase Political Knowledge: Evidence from the United States

David Macdonald

Florida State University | @davidTmacdonald

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Do labor unions inform their members? Despite their decline over the past several decades, unions remain an important political actor. Past research has found that unions have important political implications. For instance, union members, particularly those with less income and less education, are much more likely to participate in politics and more likely to turn out to vote. Stronger unions also reduce economic inequality, and lead to more equal representation of citizens by elected officials. Because unions are prominent political actors, it seems plausible that they can also increase their members’ political knowledge as well. However, we lack direct evidence on this relationship.

I argue that unions increase their members’ political knowledge, and that this occurs through two processes. First unions provide their members with direct sources of information through emails, newsletters, direct mail, campaign mobilization, blog posts, and social media. Second, unions reflect a workplace environment in which political discussion is more likely to occur. This means that union members, relative to their non-unionized counterparts are much more likely to be exposed to an information environment that facilitates learning about politics.

To test this, I use data from recent national election surveys, primarily the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES). I show that union members, particularly those without any college education, are significantly more politically knowledgeable than their non-union counterparts. I attribute this to the rich information environment that labor unions provide, and the efforts that they take to provide their members with political information. This helps to reduce the costs of seeking out political information, something that can be quite daunting for people with less formal education.

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I used OLS regression to examine the relationship between union membership and political knowledge, across varying levels of educational attainment. Results from Figure 2 show that non-college educated union members are significantly more political knowledgeable than their non-union counterparts. Though the effect size is relatively modest, it is certainly not trivial, as shown in Table 4. Indeed, union membership reduces the “knowledge gap” between people without any college education and those with a college degree by approximately 34 percent. Results also show that this relationship is present in private and public sector unions, in the 1970s and 1980s as well as the 1990s and 2000s, and is stronger in states without right to work (RTW) legislation, where unions are larger, better organized, and more politically active.

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This work has important implications. Organized labor has declined dramatically over the past several decades, due in part to economic globalization, but also by the policy decisions made by the federal and state governments. Of all the factors that are correlated with political knowledge, such as: age, education, gender, race, income, and interest in politics, union membership is the only one that can feasibly be influenced by politicians. Policies that weaken labor unions may end up depriving people, particularly those with less formal education, not only of a source of political mobilization, but also an important source of political information.

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