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What Unions Are Doing to Protect American Democracy

Voting rights and democratic institutions are under attack nationwide. Unions, with their 14 million members, may be the best hope for fighting back.

Protestors rallied outside the Wisconsin State Capitol
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Protesters rallied outside the Wisconsin State Capitol after the Assembly voted to effectively end collective bargaining rights for public union workers on March 10, 2011.

With an eye to this November’s elections, Paul Spink—like many union leaders in Wisconsin—plans to do his utmost this year to salvage what’s left of democracy in his state. Spink, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, in Wisconsin, says it’s vital to reelect the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, to preserve some semblance of majority rule in Wisconsin and to keep some check on what he sees as a runaway Republican legislature that is pushing hard to lock in GOP rule for the next 10 years.

“It’s really hard to use the term ‘democracy’ to describe what’s happening now in Wisconsin,” Spink said. “It has been years of them trying to undermine the idea of having average people pick their leaders.”

In 2010, a year when the GOP made major gains in state races across the nation, Republicans won control of Wisconsin’s governor’s mansion and both houses of its legislature. The next year, Republicans approved a gerrymandered district map that ensured continuation of the GOP majority in both legislative houses in election after election, even when Democrats won a majority of votes statewide in legislative races. Spink complains that Wisconsin’s Republicans are now parlaying that decade-old gerrymander into a more egregious one aimed to lock in a veto-proof majority.

Spink is outraged that Wisconsin’s Republican legislature—aided by a ruling from the United States Supreme Court’s hard-right majority—pushed through a redistricting plan that aims to give the GOP veto-proof, two-thirds control of the State Assembly and Senate even though the Democrats won all five top races for statewide office in 2018. Spink said that if the Republicans win either the governorship or a veto-proof legislative majority in November, “we’ll see them passing more and more laws to make it so they’ll never lose power.”

Noting Wisconsin’s progressive, labor-friendly past—it was the first state to enact unemployment insurance, for example—Spink added, “We used to be a laboratory of democracy. Now we’ve become a laboratory of autocracy.”

Spink, a 43-year-old Milwaukee resident, became head of AFSCME in Wisconsin in 2015, after years working as a state employee who inspected childcare centers for safety. Spink typically talks with a calm demeanor, but when he turns to the precarious state of democracy in Wisconsin, frustration and anger quickly seep into his voice.

“In recent months, there’ve been at least five or six bills the legislature passed to limit voting rights and undermine elections,” Spink said. “We’re trying very hard to keep a Democratic governor in this state to block those.” 

When John Johnson, a Marquette University law professor, analyzed the GOP’s voting map this April, he predicted hugely skewed results for this November: that Republicans would win 63 out of Wisconsin’s 99 Assembly seats and 23 out of 33 Senate seats—this in a state with a population that is widely viewed as being split 50–50 between Democrats and Republicans. Gerrymandering of this magnitude is unhealthy in a democracy; not only does it disadvantage certain blocs of voters over others, diluting the power of their votes, it also undermines the validity of the resulting government itself. Spink very much hopes that organized labor and its allies will—by helping Democrats win enough of the few legislative districts that remain competitive—manage to block the GOP’s ambitions to secure a veto-proof majority in both houses.

Spink aims to mobilize hundreds of AFSCME members to knock on doors, do phone-banking, and speak to fellow employees in the workplace to explain that democracy is on the line and that Republican politicians, from Donald Trump on down, have delivered far more to corporations and the wealthy than to the nation’s workers. “It’s up to me and people like me to beat the odds in some of these districts,” Spink said. “We’re going to have to run a better political program than we have before. It will be all hands on deck.”

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Making Spink’s political efforts tougher, back in 2011 Wisconsin’s then-Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature enacted a landmark anti-union law that aimed to cripple most of the state’s government employee unions by creating several hurdles that made it harder and more expensive for union locals to survive. (One of those hurdles is a hard-to-win annual recertification vote with rules stacked hugely against unions.) As a result of that law, AFSCME’s Wisconsin membership has plummeted to just 10,000 from over 50,000 a decade ago. Indeed, largely as a result of that 2011 law and other measures to weaken unions, Wisconsin’s union membership has plunged by 170,000, or 44 percent, since 2009, with the percentage of workers in unions falling to 7.9 percent from 15.2 percent—the steepest drop of any state. Wisconsin’s Republicans recognized that by weakening labor unions and their treasuries, they would undermine the Democrats’ electoral chances.

Spink said, “We’ll just have to punch above our weight when it comes to the total number of doors we’re going to hit and the calls we’re going to make and some of the checks we’re going to write.”

The GOP push to undermine majority rule by minimizing the political voice of unions and minority voters will hurt Wisconsin’s workers, Spink says. He predicts that veto-proof Republican control will mean new legislation to increase child labor and little effort to modernize the state’s balky unemployment insurance system. Wisconsin Republicans have proposed letting 14-year-olds work until 9:30 p.m. on school days and until 11:00 p.m. on non-school days.

“If we don’t have democracy,” Spink said, “there is no fairness for working people.”

The need for a nationwide effort

Across the nation, many labor leaders share Spink’s alarm about preserving democracy as well as his goal of punching above one’s weight in this year’s elections. They view this year’s election and 2024’s with dire urgency, as a goal-line stand to defend America’s democracy; and they also understand that, thanks to organized labor’s ability to mobilize tens of thousands of foot soldiers, America’s unions, with their 14 million members, are one of the nation’s most potent and effective political forces.

Labor unions typically focus on presidential and congressional races, but this year, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, they plan to focus far more than usual on state and local races—for instance, to defeat Republican candidates for elections commissions and secretaries of state who support Trump’s “Big Lie” and who have suggested they will overturn their state’s vote results in 2024 if the Democratic presidential nominee comes out ahead.

Political scientists say unions can play a big role in preventing Trump and other Republicans from subverting America’s democracy. “Unions are a huge mobilizer,” said Paul Frymer, a political science professor at Princeton. “They’re one of the biggest mobilizers for the Democratic Party, maybe the biggest.”

Shane Larson, director of government affairs for the Communications Workers of America, sees a big attitude shift among union leaders—to far greater urgency. Larson said that many labor leaders, as usual, wanted to focus overwhelmingly on jobs and other economic matters and weren’t paying much heed to warnings that America’s democracy was threatened. January 6, 2021, was a huge “wake-up call” to those union leaders, Larson said.

Now, he said, “the conversation among union presidents is that our movement has to do something here for our democracy or we can lose it.” Larson added that part of labor’s focus this year “is to hold accountable a number of insurrectionists running for some of these offices.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said some union leaders, along with many Americans, “still don’t have the imagination to believe that this [the destruction of democracy] could happen in America. There’s a sense that our democracy is so well rooted that nothing will dislodge it. If there is one thing that I could help change right now, it is for people to have the sense of imagination that it could happen here. Once you lose a certain number of democratic institutions, it’s very hard to get them back.”

Ensuring broader participation

America’s labor unions are pursuing two interlocking strategies in their effort to protect and preserve America’s democracy. One strategy is to battle against efforts that would reduce the voice of minority voters, make it harder to vote, and empower Trump partisans to twist and even overturn vote counts. The second strategy is to make sure that Democrats win pivotal states, especially longtime union strongholds, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but also states that have more recently moved from red to blue, such as Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Virginia.

“For me, protecting democracy right now means rebuilding the blue wall in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania,” said Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL-CIO political director. “Without those states, there is no way that Donald Trump or the next Donald Trump or any anti-worker candidate could win in 2024.”

In Rosenthal’s view, if union households totaled 25 to 30 percent of the vote in those three industrial states, as they did 25 years ago, instead of totaling 15 or 20 percent, as they do today, Trump would never have won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2016—and with them the election. Nor would he be able to win those states again in 2024. There are hundreds of thousands of former union members in those three states, who are no longer contacted by their union, who no longer receive union political literature, who no longer have union members knocking on their doors, and that, many political experts say, helps explain why Trump was able to narrowly win those three states in 2016. (Many unions were so confident that Hillary Clinton would win those states that they didn’t mount nearly as much of a campaign effort as they might have.)

For many labor leaders and Democratic lawmakers, a major concern is that many blue-collar workers—union members, former union members, and nonunion workers—have gotten swept into a right-wing echo chamber that amplifies the messaging from Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, Breitbart, Mark Levin, Charlie Kirk, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson. “Where we’re failing is with the right-wing sound machine and echo chamber—their message is constantly reinforced,” Larson said. “We have to figure out, how are we going to counter that story? The one thing we know is that workers value their union as an information source. In a time when people don’t trust information sources, we’re constantly finding they see their unions as a valid source of information—even if workers don’t agree all the time with their union.”

Rosenthal has founded a group, In Union, that aims to counter the right-wing echo chamber and give blue-collar workers accurate information on what’s happening in the economy and what various candidates stand for. His group keeps in regular contact with hundreds of thousands of former union members in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those voters perhaps lost their union membership when their steel mills or auto plants closed and they lost their jobs. In Union sends emails and texts, mails newsletters, and knocks on doors to talk to voters about issues months in advance of elections and then holds long conversations at voters’ doors closer to the election about which candidates are pro-worker and which aren’t. Throughout 2020, In Union was in regular contact with 1.2 million voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (including many nonunion voters who surveys show share the views of union members). Rosenthal hopes to get funding to reach out to another three million nonunion voters in the coming months.

With money from unions, foundations, and individuals, his group seeks to build trust with those voters and explain, for example, as it did during the 2020 election, how Joe Biden would do more for workers than Donald Trump would. A recent In Union newsletter for Pennsylvania voters explains what new infrastructure investments will mean for Pennsylvania and how Biden’s new rules mandate that the federal government use its powers to buy American-made goods.

Jacob Grumbach, a political science professor at the University of Washington, says unions can play an important role in offsetting the GOP’s repeated use of cultural issues such as transgender rights and critical race theory to create “moral panics” in order to get blue-collar workers to vote Republican. “They often vote now based on anti-immigrant views and culture-war issues,” Grumbach said, “but compare that becoming a priority to how people voted when unions were the main organizing force for the working class.”

Grumbach said the Biden administration recognizes the political advantages of strengthening unions. “Hopefully it’s not too little too late,” he said. “It’s crucial for the Democrats to have this long-term base to structure politics around material circumstances [such as housing affordability and access to childcare] rather than around a cultural war.”

Many labor leaders say Democratic lawmakers have unwittingly undermined their party’s chances by doing so little in recent decades to stop unions’ membership and clout from declining. More than 20 percent of all workers were in unions in the 1980s, but that has fallen to just 10 percent today.

“For a long time, the Democrats have ignored just how important unions are to represent workers and raise salaries—and how important they are to the Democratic Party for winning elections,” said Princeton’s Frymer. “They let the union decline happen right before their eyes. They didn’t do anything to stop it. They let their coalition decline.”

Over the past 50 years, the Democrats have repeatedly failed to enact legislation to make it easier for unions to grow. Democratic lawmakers are quick to note that Republican filibusters blocked efforts by Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden to make it easier to unionize.

While labor leaders often criticize Carter, Clinton, and Obama for not doing enough to strengthen unions, they give higher praise to Joe Biden. Biden and his administration seem eager to reverse the decline in union membership and union power, all while many Republicans are clearly intent on hastening labor’s decline. Biden has vigorously backed the Protecting the Right Organize, or PRO, Act, one of the most comprehensive pieces of pro-union legislation since the New Deal. But that legislation, which the House has approved, has stalled in the Senate, not just because of a Republican filibuster but because several Democratic senators have opposed it, undermining efforts to get even a simple majority of senators to back it.

It is well known that unions boost election prospects for Democratic candidates by educating union members on issues and getting out the vote through door knocking and phone banking. But unions help the Democrats in other important ways. Various academic studies have found that unions help discourage workers from backing right-wing populists such as Trump who appeal to worker resentment. Unions help prevent workers from growing resentful and alienated by delivering economic gains, by rooting workers in social networks, and by reducing racial resentment among white workers. Unionized workers are more prosperous than nonunion workers in comparable jobs. They earn more; receive better health coverage and pensions; and have more job security, vacation days, and paid sick days. 

A study of union members by Frymer and Grumbach found that by bringing workers of different races together and having them cooperate in pursuit of common goals, unions reduce racial resentment. “White union members,” they write, “have lower racial resentment and greater support for policies that benefit African Americans.” As a candidate, Trump milked many white workers’ racial resentment to win their support.

Unions have long played a big role reaching that much-analyzed, much-discussed demographic: blue-collar whites. That group was key to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition but has moved sharply away from the Democrats in recent years. Unions have tempered that shift, however. Frymer and Grumbach found that white union members vote eight to 14 percentage points more for Democrats than do white nonunion members. This more Democratic tilt among white union members accounted for 1.7 percentage points of Obama’s victory margin in 2008 and again in 2012, several studies have found.

“Unions remain the only set of organizations in the U.S. that can help prevent working-class whites from going conservative,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. While Trump often boasts that he did well among union members, Rosenfeld reminds us that Trump lost among union members in both 2016 and 2020.

It is often forgotten that unions frequently educate and engage typical Americans in the basics of democracy and civic activism. In that way, unions help to get many nonaffluent Americans involved in politics, and that, at least somewhat, offsets the disproportionate political voice that corporations and the wealthy have thanks to their lobbying and hefty campaign donations. Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, has praised unions for building an important sense of community—with their meetings, marches, protests, and picnics—and for serving as “schools for democracy,” where workers get involved in everything from collective bargaining to debates in union meetings to canvassing in political campaigns.

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political science professor at Columbia University who is overseeing some research for the Labor Department, said, “Unions serve as a school for democracy for citizens by introducing individuals, particularly those who might not be involved in other civic organizations, to the rhythms of democracy.”

The ground game

When it comes to fighting to defend democracy, Unite Here, a 300,000-member union of hotel and restaurant workers, has perhaps punched above its weight more than any other union. It was a principal sponsor of a modern-day “Freedom Ride,” in which 1,500 hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, and other union members were bused into Washington along with Black Lives Matters activists and other allies to press Congress to enact new voting rights protections. In Arizona, Unite Here co-sponsored a hunger strike to pressure Senator Kyrsten Sinema to enact voting rights legislation. The union also posted videos and ran full-page newspaper ads to press Arizona’s Republican legislature not to roll back voting rights, and it pushed Arizona lawmakers to condemn Cyber Ninjas’ much-derided review of the presidential vote.

Other unions have also done their best to dissuade GOP-led state legislatures from making it harder for people to vote, but that’s an uphill battle in deep-red states where many lawmakers have swallowed Trump’s lie about widespread voter fraud. In Georgia and Texas, the Service Employees International Union ran internet ads that criticized Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, and other corporations for donating to lawmakers who backed new voting restrictions. AFSCME, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers held rallies in Washington, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Detroit to defend the right to vote and protest efforts to make it harder for Americans of color to vote. AFSCME also provided plaintiffs in lawsuits that have challenged new laws that it says illegally discriminate against and disenfranchise voters of color. Many unions are urging their members to serve as poll watchers in communities where they fear that Trumpist poll watchers will seek to intimidate voters of color.

At the same time, AFSCME and other unions are educating people about how to make sure they can vote despite all the newly enacted voter restrictions, such as laws cutting back on early voting, drop boxes, and Election Day registration.

“We’re not going to sit back and assume the courts are going to help us out,” said Brian Weeks, AFSCME’s national political director. “We assume that we will have problems, and we’ll make sure that our program helps overcome that.”

In recent months, teachers unions have fought a different type of battle to defend democracy—often by fighting against book bans and defending teachers who face punishment for teaching about racism. “In many countries, labor unions have been a bulwark against authoritarianism,” said Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten said her union might endorse some non-Trumpist Republicans, such as Lynn Cheney, who reject the “Big Lie” and Trump’s efforts to overturn election results. This means that in districts where Democrats have little chance of victory, the teachers union might help elect Republicans who oppose the GOP’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism.

For the 2020 elections, Unite Here ran a huge door-knocking operation that some political experts say could serve as a model for the overall labor movement.

That union had 500 full-time canvassers going door to door in Nevada and another 500 doing the same in Arizona. Unite Here says its canvassers contacted 48,364 infrequent voters in Arizona who did not vote in 2016 and urged them to back Biden. The union says that helps explain why Biden won Arizona by 10,457 votes, a victory that surprised and shocked the Trump forces. Many of Unite Here’s canvassers were hotel workers who were laid off during the pandemic, and their union, often helped by funds from other unions, paid them about $700 a week to canvas.

All told, Unite Here says its canvassers knocked on three million doors in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Pennsylvania in 2020 and talked with more than 460,000 infrequent voters. Its canvassers did so well in those states that Stacey Abrams asked Unite Here to send its canvassers to help push Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff over the top in the Senate runoff in Georgia. The union says it sent 1,000 canvassers to Georgia from Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and other states.

Chris Smith, a 53-year-old Unite Here member who works as a bartender in San Diego, spent six weeks canvassing in Georgia. “People whose doors I knocked on, they got excited,” Smith said. “They asked me a lot of questions. I felt I was making a difference, that I did matter. We were going to turn the Senate away from the bullying Republicans.”

Susan Minato, co-president of Unite Here’s giant union local in Southern California and Arizona, sees her union’s effort as an example for all of labor. “I want other unions to have more people canvassing in these races, to do it in every state,” she said. “That would be huge.”

Gwen Mills, Unite Here’s secretary-treasurer, said the union’s goal is to have 1,500 union members canvassing in key races this year, “going door to door, reigniting people to vote.” Mills said, “We try to keep a drum beat year in and year out: Do democracy at work, do democracy at the doors, do democracy at the polls, do democracy in the capital.” 

With Stacey Abrams running for governor in Georgia, Unite Here expects her to ask it to send in some canvassers again this year. The New Georgia Project is an influential voter registration and mobilization organization founded by Abrams, and Eric Robertson, its labor liaison, said, “Labor can have an outsized impact by being out there this year. They have relationships with workers who are part of these communities. If the unions are able to activate them, that’s going to move the dial, and moving the dial is important in this election because the margins of victory will be so narrow. Labor can really make a difference.”

This essay was commissioned by and is co-published with the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.