Progressives Don’t Face False Choices In Strengthening the Labor Movement

By Alexander Hertel-Fernandez (@awh)

The collapse of the American labor movement has been devastating for the economy—and also for progressive politics. As my co-authors and I have documented, conservative efforts to weaken the unions through state legislative cutbacks and legal challenges have cost Democrats at the polls and helped to shift policy and politics to the ideological right. To reduce inequality and bolster their long-term political power, Democrats need to roll back conservative victories on labor law while also passing new laws that will help unions rebuild their membership and clout.

What kinds of Democrats are most likely to support such efforts to cultivate a new labor movement? A new survey I fielded indicates that when looking for pro-labor Democrats, progressives do not face trade-offs between supporting politicians who are progressive on labor issues and on other policies, like the climate change or reproductive rights. Instead, I find that the more progressive a state Democratic politician is on social and economic issues, the more likely they are to support expanding legal rights for unions. As Data for Progress has documented before, the choice between a progressive movement rooted in economic issues and one involving social identities is a false one. The case of labor rights is no different.

First, a little more background on the data that I have gathered. In fall 2017, I – along with two other political scientists, Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes at University of California, Santa Barbara – fielded a survey of sitting state legislators and their policy staff. In all, a little over 700 lawmakers and staff responded to our survey, and of those, I asked a random subsample of a little over 300 about their perceptions of, and preferences for, different labor union rights. Fortunately, the legislators and staffers who responded to our survey were not too different from the broader population of legislators and staffers in terms of region, rank, or party.

The main question probing state politicians’ support for unions asked “Regardless of your state’s current law, do you think it should be legal for unions or labor associations of the following kinds of workers to…” and was followed by a grid that let respondents select their support for different labor union rights for five different types of workers. These workers included three kinds of public-sector workers – state and local agency employees, police and firefighters, and teachers – and two kinds of private-sector workers intended to capture traditional private-sector union work (manufacturing) and relatively newer low-wage service-sector union work (janitors).

For each occupation, survey respondents indicated their support of the following labor union rights:

  • Collectively bargain for wages and benefits Automatically collect dues from members' paychecks

  • Require all workers at unionized shops to pay dues (except political contributions)

  • Provide extra unemployment benefits to members

  • Make campaign contributions to candidates

  • Lobby government

  • Go on strike

I then summarized respondents’ support for expanding labor rights by adding their support of each proposal for each occupation, resulting in an index running from zero (support for no labor rights) to 35 (support for all labor rights across all occupations.)

To gauge respondents’ left-right orientation on other policy issues, I fielded another battery of questions asking about respondents’ personal support or opposition to the following social and economic policy proposals:

  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders

  • Mandate background checks for all gun sales, including at gun shows and over the Internet

  • Make abortions illegal in all circumstances

  • Increase minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020

  • Authorize $305 Billion to repair and expand highways, bridges, and transit over the next 5 years

  • Repeal the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (also known as Obamacare)

  • Set strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health

  • Give states the option of expanding their existing Medicaid program to cover more low-income, uninsured adults

  • Grant legal status to people who were brought to the US illegally as children, but who have graduated from a U.S. high school.

Respondents indicated their support for each item on a four-point scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”. I then averaged all of the items together, scaled so that more liberal positions would be higher.

The figure below shows how respondents’ policy liberalism and support for labor rights is related, separating out Democrats from Republicans. I have overlaid the points with a locally-weighted regression line to help visualize trends.

Two big conclusions emerge from the figure. First (and unsurprisingly), on average Democrats are substantially more supportive than are Republicans when it comes to expanding labor union rights. But equally interesting is the relationship between respondents’ support for labor unions and their overall left-right policy orientation. For Republicans, there was only a weak relationship between the two factors. Knowing a Republican state politician’s stance on economic and social issues doesn’t help much in predicting their stance on labor rights: GOPers tend to be mostly opposed to rights for most unionized workers. By comparison, there is much stronger of a relationship for Democrats: the more progressive they are on social and economic issues, the more supportive they are of expanding labor union rights.


This is both good news and bad news for progressives hoping to rebuild the American labor movement. The bad news is that support for labor unions is less of a guarantee in the Democratic party than opposition to unions is for Republicans. Support for unions is still not a given among many moderate Democrats (even though that may be changing given the shifting center of gravity in the Democratic party). But the good news is that progressives who want to move the party to the left on other issues—like climate, immigration, and reproductive rights—don’t necessarily face a tension when thinking about support for labor unions. By electing and supporting all-around liberal candidates, progressives can help rebuild the labor movement and make progress on immigration, civil rights, reproductive justice, and more.

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez (@awh) is an Assistant Professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States -- and the Nation (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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