Unions balance political discourse

Study finds unions give voice to voters politicians can otherwise easily ignore

A new study finds that unions typically give voice to the politically disenfranchised. (Shutterstock)

A new study finds that unions typically give voice to the politically disenfranchised. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

A new study finds that unions balance U.S. political discourse by giving voice to those who are sometimes drowned out by the rich.

The study, "Labor Unions and Unequal Representation," was delivered earlier this year by Daniel Stegmueller, Michael Becher, and Konstantin Kappner at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, but examines the U.S. political system.

Basically, it shows that as union membership or "density" rises in a congressional district, the preferences shown by that representative are more likely to favor low-income residents over high-income residents, and of course vice versa: as union density declines, the rich are favored.

The study finds that, generally, as income inequality grows across the United States, the rich tend to have more say in national politics as played out in the U.S. House of Representatives. But union involvement tends to mitigate that.

"Against the widespread view that unions are either too weak or too narrow to mitigate political inequality in the national arena, we find that the district-level strength of unions is clearly linked to the responsiveness of legislators to different income groups," the authors write. "While legislators are more responsive to the preferences to the affluent than those of the poor on average, the representation gap is highly variable."

It cited as an example that representatives are much more likely to act in the general public good on Chinese tariffs in districts where unions have a voice than in districts where that's not the case.

Tariffs have proved to be a controversial issue across Illinois, with steelworkers at the U.S. Steel Granite City Works cheering them, while farmers are opposed. Gov. Rauner has backed President Trump's trade war.

Frank Manzo IV, policy director for the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, agreed with the findings.

"The authors present compelling evidence that the strength of the unions is linked to the responsiveness of Congress on issues that matter for working-class families," Manzo said, and it confirms similar U.S. studies.

"The research is clear that the labor movement increases political engagement among working-class families," he added. "Labor unions boost voter turnout, promote working-class Americans running for office, and provide poor and middle-class families a voice — both in the workplace and in the halls of Congress."

Manzo pointed out that "efforts to weaken unions result in pay cuts for workers and more inequality in the economy." He cited “right-to-work” laws like the one that was rejected in Missouri earlier this month, which have been found to make states less likely to raise the minimum wage for low-income workers and more likely to repeal local prevailing wage laws for skilled construction workers.

"Unions built America’s middle class by helping to elect officials with similar working-class backgrounds and enacting legislation that supports working-class families," Manzo said. "The decline of unions, should it continue in the post-Janus environment, will have far-reaching consequences for the economy."