Union Voters Are Different

Class Consciousness Still Makes a Difference

Being in a union still makes a person far more likely to vote Democratic.

There's a good deal of discussion among liberals today about the union vote. Walker got 36 percent of it, and to some people, that seems high, given that this whole business was about his attacks on unions in the first place. But in fact, it's in the normal range for a Republican, and indeed a bit low: In 2008, John McCain won 39 percent of union households in the state.

In my experience, 36 to 40 percent is exactly the range of the "union household" vote that goes GOP--in the country, and in nearly every state where unions are meaningful. That sounds high at first blush perhaps, but here are two reasons why it's so.

First, in the old days, union household rates of support for Democrats were much higher, mainly because most workers were men, and their wives tended to follow their husband's vote. So in southern West Virginia, the miners voted FDR and Truman and Kennedy, and their wives did, too. In more recent years, obviously, the unionized work force, especially among pubic employees, the only union category that has grown in recent history, is much more female.

This means in turn that the "union households" category has become a tad misleading, because the difference in levels of Democratic support between actual union members and the spouses who live with them has become pretty dramatic. It was yesterday, when 71 percent of union members voted for Barrett but just 51 percent of non-union members of "union households" backed him. I don't know that anyone has studied this, but a logical guess would be that we're talking here about, for example, husbands of school teachers and the like.

Second, rates of support for Democrats began to decrease among white male union voters in the mid to late 1970s. This happened first because of the rise of social issues: FDR and Truman and Kennedy never had to utter a single word about abortion or embryos or a dozen other things. Then Reagan hit the scene and became their avenger against affirmative action and so on, and the rest you know.

In 2008, Obama beat McCain among white non-college graduates who belong to a union, and not by a little. By 23 points. On the flipside, he lost white non-college graduates overall by 18 points. So you can see that it still makes a difference, and class consciousness does still exist! It's just that it exists among only about 7 percent of voters, which should make it pretty clear why the Republicans damn well want to keep things this way, because if union penetration ever reached even about 14 percent of the private sector, no Republican could ever win a national election.