XII. LERA REFEREED PAPERS:
DISPUTE RESOLUTION, INTERNATIONAL AND COMAPARATIVE INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS,
AND LABOR UNIONS AND STUDIES
and Voter Turnout
University of Michigan
This research combines
information from the AFL-CIO Union Cities program with national
survey data to examine whether politically active labor councils
affected voter turnout in the 2000 national election. Results indicate
that congressional districts with a Union City were associated with
approximately 5 percent higher voter turnout. This effect, however,
is mediated by preexisting political activity. Further analysis
indicates that districts with a Union City have relatively higher
rates of voting among minorities and the working class. These results
support the general theory that organized labor is socializing labor-capital
In The Semisovereign
People by E. E. Schattschneider (1960) proposes a theory on
interest group behavior that applies to the contemporary union movement.
The strategic response to intergroup conflict, according to Schattschneider,
is essentially a choice over the scope of conflict. In most circumstances,
when two or more groups are engaged in a confrontation the advantaged
party will try to contain, or "privatize," intergroup conflict.
Keeping the conflict private preserves power relations and, by extension,
the hegemonic status of the advantaged. Weaker parties, on the other
hand, will attempt to alter the balance of power by recruiting sympathetic
outsiders in order to build a unified alliance against the dominant:
a process Schattschneider refers to as "socializing" conflict. This
dynamic of opposing tendencies toward the privatization and socialization
of conflict can operate in reverse: formerly weak parties that become
powerful tend to shed alliances to pursue an independent path.
In most local, national,
and international contexts, labor has lost power relative to capital,
and consistent with Schattschneider, the tactics of labor reflect
a shift toward socializing conflict. The evolving rhetoric behind
organizing drives, with the right to bargain collectively increasingly
advocated for in universal terms, such as "justice" or "respect,"
is purposely framed to appeal to non-union organizations. Some unions
are circumventing the legal conventions for achieving bargaining
rights, rejecting NLRB supervised elections in favor of a card-check
recognition process that often leverages local community support.
Once workers are formally represented, pressuring employers to agree
to contract terms is less a function of strike capacity and more
dependent on corporate campaigns: a broad array of tactics that
exert diffuse and multidirectional forms of pressure on industry
leaders. As the recent phrase "social movement unionism" implies,
these tactics are symptomatic of a strategic shift toward socializing
conflict between labor and capital.
A Return to Political
One implication of
the socialization of labor-capital conflict is that organized labor
will become more politically active. This happens, in part, because
the legal rules and economic policy that encumber new organizing
and threaten existing members can be modified only through a political
process. Pressure also comes from newly invited allies. Working
coalitions entail interorganizational compacts that constrain the
ability for one member to pursue policy that conflicts with interests
of others in the coalition. Because the reform agenda of traditional
and prospective non-union coalition partners, such as civil rights
groups, interfaith councils, students, and environmentalists, are
nearly always framed in political terms,1
it follows that any sustained strategy to socialize conflict
requires labor to become politically engaged and respect, if not
adopt, the issues of non-union coalition partners. Without genuine
reciprocity, coalitions are either short-lived or they fail to grow
beyond mere words.
Union political expenditures
do indicate a shift toward politics. Figure 1 provides inflation-adjusted
election-cycle donations (in 2002 dollars) to political candidates
for the 1990 through 2002 national elections.
According to these
aggregate data, organized labor nearly doubled the magnitude of
political contributions to candidates over the twelve-year period.
Center for Responsive Politics. See: http://www.opensecrets.org.
This has occurred,
by and large, without deviating from the "reward our friends, punish
our enemies" formula of Samuel Gompers. The distribution of political
contributions across the two major political parties was stable
over the 1990 to 2002 time period, with anywhere from 93 percent
to 96 percent going to Democrats. And as a group, the Democrats
have been far more responsive to labor than Republicans. In 2000,
for example, the average pro-labor voting record among Democrats
was 87.6 percent, compared with an 8.6 percent average among Republicans.
This trend in resource
appropriation is consistent with historical evidence of an inverse
relationship between organized labor's ability to negotiate tangible
gains at the bargaining table and labor's role as an agent for political
insurgency. Perlman (1922) describes labor's embrace of egalitarian
political reform during the nineteenth century—achieving suffrage
for wage earners and public education—during a time when criminal
conspiracy doctrines suppressed the growth of unions as economic
organizations. Greene (1998) documents Samuel Gompers's reluctant
immersion into partisan politics during the first decades of the
twentieth century to counter the assault on AFL membership.
The CIO facilitated
both economic agitation and widespread grassroots political mobilization
during the 1930s, just prior to and during the greatest surge in
U.S. union membership growth (Foster 1975).
Yet in 1947, with private
sector unions nearing their peak postwar economic strength, labor
failed to muster enough political support to prevent a congressional
override of Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act. In the Cold War
era that followed, labor infamously purged leftist leaders from
their ranks, opposed rank-and-file support of third-party candidates,
was slow to join the Civil Rights movement, and alienated students
by supporting the Vietnam War (Brody 1980; Meyer 1992; Rosswurm
1992; Zeiger 1986). Although there are notable exceptions to this
pattern, a broad read of history indicates that when economic progress
is achievable through bilateral bargaining, progressive alliances
are disregarded and political militancy is suppressed. Coalition
activity, progressive posturing, and political militancy ascend
when bargaining fails.
Union Cities and
Attempts to socialize
labor-capital conflict are evident in "Union Cities," the AFL-CIO
program to revitalize labor councils (LCs) as centers of regional
political activity (Moberg 2000).2
Union Cities was initiated after the Republican takeover of
Congress in 1994, when it became doubtful that a block of reliable
Democrats and a handful of labor Republicans could obstruct the
passage of anti-labor legislation, let alone enact pro-labor measures
(Dark 2000; Gerber 1999). Labor's political influence was waning,
due in part to inattention to regional capacity building. To augment
labor's pol itical presence in areas of high union density, the
Union Cities program instructs LC leaders to participate in community
coalitions, perform political outreach in working-class neighborhoods,
diversify and train labor-friendly political leaders, and expand
labor's voice through the media. The aim is to socialize the role
of LCs by encouraging relations with labor-friendly constituencies,
particularly targeting groups sympathetic to the interests of minorities
and the working class.
We explore the socialization
hypothesis by examining the association between Union Cities and
voter turnout for the general population in the 2000 election. Although
researchers have examined voter turnout of union members (Delaney,
Masters, and Schwochau 1988; Sousa 1993; Zullo 2004), few have tested
whether unions facilitate voter turnout for the general population.
After controlling for state-level rates of urbanization, education,
and income, Radcliff and Davis (2000, Tables 3 and 4) estimate that
a 1 percent increase in union density is associated with approximately
0.20 to 0.25 percent higher vote turnout. In a complementary analysis,
Radcliff (2001) models the propensity for U.S. citizens to vote
as a function of national union density from 1952 to 1992. Factoring
out whether a respondent is from a union household, and controlling
for demographic factors, results indicate that union density is
positively correlated with the probability of voting, leading to
the conclusion that unions mobilize both their members and nonunion
Our analysis draws
a more precise bead on this topic by evaluating voter turnout at
the congressional district level. Consistent with prior research
on unions and voting (Delaney et al. 1988; Radcliff 2001; Sousa
1993), voter turnout is analyzed using National Election Study (NES)
data. Turnout is modeled as a function of the existence of a regional
Union City LC, labor PACs, district turnout in 1992, and relevant
controls. Results indicate a positive association between Union
Cities and voter turnout, although this effect is mediated by preexisting
regional political activity. To further explore the socialization
hypothesis, we compare voting with respect to respondent characteristics
in districts with a Union City and those without, focusing on race,
class, and 1992 turnout.
Data and Variables
Data were compiled
from four sources. The list of LCs designated as Union Cities were
recognized as "Central labor councils committed to becoming a Union
City" during the 2001 AFL-CIO convention. Using geographic information
systems (GIS) software, the zip code for each Union City LC was
matched against the boundaries for the 106th Congress. If a congressional
district boundary crossed the zip-code boundary of a Union City
LC, then it was assumed that the LC was politically active in that
district during the 2000 election. Congressional districts with
a Union City LC were coded 1; otherwise they were coded zero.
The Union City variable
was merged with the 2000 NES data. The NES is a comprehensive biennial
election survey conducted by the University of Michigan Center for
Political Studies (Burns et al. 2001). The dependent variable (Voted)
was derived from a question asking respondents whether they voted
(v001241). Those responding "I'm sure I voted" were coded 1; otherwise
they were coded zero.
Two consistent predictors
of voting from the NES were used as control variables. First, age
has a strong curvilinear association with voting, with voting rates
lowest for the young, peaking at around seventy years, and then
declining afterward (Miller and Shanks 1996; Rosenstone and Hansen
1993; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980). Age in years and age-squared
are in all equations. Second, those who have a strong psychological
attachment to a political party vote at higher rates than independents
(Miller and Shanks 1996; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993). To capture
the turnout effect related to partisan attachment, responses to
the question "Do you think there are any important differences in
what the Republicans and Democrats stand for?" are included (v001435).
Affirmative responses are coded 1; otherwise they are coded zero.
report lower turnout among working-class citizens (Shields and Goidel
1997; Teixeira 1987; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980). To explore
the association between class and voting, a variable was operationalized
from the NES based on a series of questions on class (v000998 to
v001004). Respondents who self-identify as "average working class,"
"upper working class," or "working class" were coded 1; otherwise
they were coded zero. To examine the relationship between race and
voting, an indicator variable was included for respondents who describe
their race as white (v001006).
Two final control variables
are used in the analysis. First, to control for the intensity of
the AFL-CIO political campaign by congressional district, total
labor PAC donations to the candidates for the 2000 election cycle
are included. These data originate from the Federal Election Commission
and are compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Second,
to control for the level of political activity by congressional
district prior to the Union City Program, voter turnout was calculated
for each congressional district in the 1992 election. Voter turnout
by congressional district was estimated by dividing the sum of the
votes for all 1992 presidential candidates (Barone and Ujifusa 1993)
by the age-eligible population (over eighteen years old) in each
district from the 1990 census. Variables and descriptive statistics
are provided in Table 1.
Union City and Voter
Table 2 provides the
probit regression estimates for voting in the 2000 election. Model
(1) includes control variables for age and party difference along
with the primary variable Union City. The positive and statistically
significant coefficient for Union City (β= 0.153; p < 0.05)
indicates that respondents located in congressional districts with
a Union City LC were approximately 5.4 percent more likely to vote
in the 2000 election. However, the Union City coefficient becomes
insignificant when the equation includes a control for the district
turnout rates in 1992. Model (2) indicates that the 1992 turnout
is a positive predictor of the likelihood that a NES respondent
voted (β= 1.395; p < 0.001). Although the coefficient for
Union City in Model
(2) remains positive,
it fails to reach conventional levels of statistical significance
(β= 0.088; p = n.s.), and the point estimate for the Union
City effect is reduced to 3 percent. These results imply that Union
City LCs are more likely to exist in districts with historically
above-average political activity.
Model (3), which includes
labor PACs, our proxy for the intensity of labor's effort by congressional
district, offers evidence that the Union City phenomena is local
rather than national. If PAC expenditures were positively correlated
with activist LCs, then the Union City coefficient should decline
in Model (3). Instead, the stable Union City coefficient across
Models (1) and (3) indicates independence between LC activity and
the strategic allocation of national PAC resources. Consistent with
prior research, these findings suggest that national unions do not
allocate PAC funds on the basis of regional membership strength
(Gopoian 1984). Model (4), which includes all the independent variables,
affirms this conclusion.
Union City, Race,
Class, and 1992 Turnout
Do Union Cities reflect
the socialization of political conflict across race and class? To
explore this question, Table 3 compares voter turnout in congressional
districts with a Union City and those without with respect to race,
class, and 1992 turnout. Models (1) and (2) test whether there is
a difference in turnout across race. The positive and statistically
significant coefficient for white voters (β= 0.248; p <
0.05) in Model (1) indicates that the probability of whites voting
was 9.3 percent higher than non-whites in districts without a Union
City. Model (2) offers the same equation for districts with a Union
City. Here the coefficient for white voters is positive yet statistically
indistinguishable from zero (β= 0.110; p = n.s.), implying
that whites and nonwhites voted at comparable rates in districts
with a Union City.
A similar pattern emerges
with class. Models (3) and (4) compare the voter turnout rates across
class for districts with and without a Union City. In districts
without a Union City, NES respondents who self-identify as working
class vote at significantly lower rates than others (β= –
0.281; p < 0.01). In such districts, the probability of voting
by working-class respondents was 10.4 percent lower than for respondents
who did not identify as working class. By comparison, in districts
with a Union City, coefficient estimates indicate no statistical
difference between the voting rates of working-class and non-working-class
respondents (β= -0.140; p = n.s.). The coefficient for working-class
voters in Model (4) yields an estimated voter turnout differential
of 4.7 percent.
The final equations
examine the extent that district turnout in 1992 predicts voting
in 2000. Turnout in 1992 is a strong positive predictor of voting
by NES respondents for districts without a Union City but less so
for districts with a Union City. The coefficient for 1992 turnout
in Model (5) (β= 1.661; p < 0.001) indicates that for every
percentage point increase in 1992 turnout, the probability of a
respondent's voting increased by 0.61 percent. By comparison, the
coefficient for 1992 turnout in Model (6) (β= 0.921; p = n.s.),
while positive, does not reach conventional levels of statistical
significance. Thus, voting rates in districts without a Union City
were relatively undisturbed by events taking place between 1992
and 2000. Conversely, this finding supports the claim that the 1994
election results shocked LC leaders and other allies into a more
Discussion and Limitations
The theoretical work
of Schattschneider (1960), combined with the historic inverse between
successful bilateral bargaining and union political activism, explain
recent efforts by organized labor to reach out to progressive allies
on the organizing front and the renewed emphasis on political militancy.
These are mutually reinforcing tactics that enlarge the scope of
labor-capital conflict. The question before labor leaders, then,
is not whether unions should abstain from politics—for they cannot
without undermining the progressive partnerships they need to rebuild
collective representation in the private workplace. Instead, labor's
declining bargaining power should push unions toward political mobilization
tactics that complement a general strategy for enlarging the scope
of labor-capital conflict.
Labor councils, as
regional coalitions of local unions, are strategically positioned
to expand alliances to include non-union organizations (Ness and
Eimer 2001). If LCs are indeed shifting toward a strategy of socializing
labor-capital conflict, there should be a positive association between
the most active labor councils and the political participation of
demographic groups traditionally aligned with organized labor. Our
results do imply that LCs designated as "Union City" play a role
in increasing political participation among the general population.
Respondents in congressional districts with a Union City voted at
rates that were approximately 5 percent higher than in districts
without a Union City. This above-average turnout, however, was mediated
by district turnout in 1992, suggesting necessary preconditions
among the general population for the formation of Union City LCs.3
The supposition that
LC strategy and capacity are partially a function of regional factors
is reinforced when we examine other district characteristics with
respect to Union City status. In districts without a Union City,
nonwhites and working-class citizens voted at rates that were significantly
lower than whites and non-working-class citizens. In districts with
a Union City, nonwhites and working-class respondents voted at rates
that were comparable to others. We tentatively conclude that relatively
high levels of political participation by minorities and the working
class help enable the formation of active LCs. This is not to imply
that LC outreach has no effect on the voting rates of minorities
and the working class. Indeed, outreach to working-class voters
is presently a directive by the national AFL-CIO. Rather, our findings
suggest that active LCs tend to arise in contexts where it is possible
to form coalitions with progressive organizations working to expand
the political voice of minorities and the working class.4
Although this research
improves upon prior work in this area, there are still limitations
related to data precision. The "Union City" designation is a crude
indicator of whether an LC has a functional political mobilization
program. Certainly many LCs that have not earned Union City status
are involved in politics, and a dichotomous indicator fails to capture
variation in political tactics and effort. Subsequent research on
this topic would benefit from more comprehensive data on LC activities
and, in particular, on measures of coalition activity between LCs
and non-union organizations. Finally, the spatial match can be improved
by examining the LC effect on smaller geographic regions. Congressional
districts are large and often oddly shaped regions. In all likelihood,
communities within the immediate proximity of LCs are most affected
by union political mobilization. Both of these limitations, however,
would tend to understate our point estimate for the Union City effect.
I thank Craig
Olson, Gordon Pavy, and Russell Lansbury for constructive comments
during the 58th Annual Meeting.
1. For a cursory
review, visit the NAACP at http://www.naacp.org/index.shtml; the Sierra
Club at http://www.sierraclub.org/; the Interfaith Alliance at http://www.
interfaithalliance.org/; and the American Civil Liberties Union at
there are "seven steps" to reach Union City status, the most comprehen-sive
asks leaders to "Engage in political action in your community by:
Setting and meeting goals that include increasing voter registration
by 10 percent; increasing Election Day turnout of union members by
5 percent and mobilizing 1 percent of union members for political
action; Organizing a member-to-member, door-to-door political campaign;
Conducting a worksite leafleting program; Helping union members run
for public office and electing advocates for working families; Holding
endorsed elected officials accountable for their record on working
family issues" (see http://www.aflcio.org/aboutunions/unioncities/
3. One should
not overemphasize this point. The larger and better-financed labor
councils had political mobilization programs prior to 1992 and probably
deserve partial credit for the above-average 1992 turnout figures.
Data limitations prevent a rigorous test for the causal question of
whether high levels of political activity are a precondition for Union
4. I find additional
evidence when equations include a variable for whether the house-hold
has a union member (not shown). Including this variable has no effect
on the Union City results. I interpret this to indicate that the Union
City influence is not limited to affiliated members.
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