It seems since time immortal that unions have been a permanent Democratic constituency. But just as many terms get used wrongly the term “unions” does as well. Many forget that the term “unions” includes those in public sector unions and private sector unions. And in many cases these two types of unions are at odds in their goals and beliefs.
It is important to chronicle a short history of unions since the end of WWII (it will be extremely short). At the end of WWII 100% of union members were in the private sector. Public sector unions did not even exist yet. Ironically the two fathers of modern labor, Presidents Woodrow Wilson and FDR, opposed public sector unions on the grounds they had no business in the sphere of providing services. They have turned out to be right. In the late 50’s, under a Republican president unions gained the right to organize in the public sector.
From there on public sector unions began to grow at breakneck speed. Teachers unions grew the fastest and soon rivaled the power of the public/private union the AFL-CIO. But while private/public union leadership found agreement on numerous issues their members did not. According to exit data private sector union members have been predominantly swing voters. They backed Reagan in 1980 and 1984, HW in 88, and Clinton in his two bids. In 2000 they narrowly backed Gore and again narrowly backed Kerry in 2004. However Clinton, Gore and Kerry overwhelmingly carried public sector union workers.
It thus has become common for both the left and right to describe unions as being a monolithic entity which is heavily leftist. And certain trends might back them up. The share of the workforce that belongs to unions has been shrinking. But it has been shrinking because fewer and fewer workers are joining private sector unions even as public sector unions grow (though that growth has slowed down significantly lately). Thus the union vote is becoming more monolithically Democratic but because public-sector unions are increasingly voting their interests by backing Democrats.
With the budget crunches that have hit the states since 2008 this trend has only accelerated. Both Republican and Democratic Governors have gone after unions to unions to help alleviate their states budget crises. Wisconsin illustrates this trend perfectly. Analyzing election data from 1998 in WI elections, provided by the Milwaukee Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert, we can see since 1998 the union vote has tilted further and further left. In 2008 John McCain only got 39% of the union vote and in 2010 Scott Walker got 37%. This is a significant drop-off.
Remember the union vote is not monolithic however. In the highly anticipated recall election occurring tonight turnout it looks like Walker will hit his 37% of the union vote in 2010 or exceed it. The reason is his solid support among private sector unions. According to a recent Marquette University survey Walker was barely getting 20% of public-sector union voters. But he only trailed his opponent Barrett 49%-45% among private-sector unions. Public-sector unions make up 55% of the union workforce in WI but Walker carrying 45% of private-sector union members is allowing him to get almost 40% of the overall union vote. If this holds up on election day it will show the clear division with unions, perhaps for the first time when people are watching closely.
There are other recent instances when the union vote did not go uniformly Democratic. In the January 2010 Senate special election to replace Teddy Kennedy (D) then GOP candidate Scott Brown won 49% of the union vote according to after-election surveys. No exit polls on the race were conducted that day. His opponent, Martha Coakley (D), only received 47%. The after election survey by Rasmussen Reports did not differentiate private-sector unions from public-sector unions but it is not a stretch to say Brown won many private-sector unions members. In fact, using other data Brown cleaned up among whites without college degrees, and who earned no more than $75,000. This would be the classic white blue-collar worker, many who belong to private-sector unions. Nationally in 2010 Republicans won 37% of the overall union vote.
Whatever the results in Wisconsin tonight exit polls are likely to show the clear division between public-sector unions and private-sector union members. In Wisconsin part of this is due to the fact Walker’s Collective Bargaining Agreement reform only affects public-sector workers. Walker has also tried to placate private-sector union members by announcing he would not try to make Wisconsin a right to work state. This has allowed Walker since 2010 to get significant support from the firefighters and police unions, which historically have leaned Republican.
If Walker wins tonight his path to victory may show the way for other GOP governors to make inroads in the union vote. Not by courting public-sector union members but exploiting the divisions within unions on private/public grounds. Recent elections before Wisconsin and nationallu have shown this is very possible. Wisconsin could just be the latest example.