Politically, Unions Are Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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Kathleen Geier points out that, as usual, labor played a big role in Tuesday’s Democratic victory:

Labor’s political power extends far beyond the 12% of American workers who are members of labor unions. Unions provide the ground troops that are essential for get-out-the-vote campaigns; this election cycle, they were particularly crucial in battleground states like Wisconsin and Ohio, which are union states. In particular, this year, unions played an even more active role in GOTV efforts than in the past, because as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, for the first time, unions were able to call and canvass not just union households, but nonunion homes as well.

The big question is, in return for all that massive support, what can labor expect the Democrats to deliver?

The answer is: not an awful lot, really. So why do unions continue to pour so much effort into Democratic campaigns?

Prospect theory gives us the same answer as common sense: for most people, fear of loss is a more powerful motivation than anticipation of gain. And that’s obviously what keeps unions working for Dems: they might not get very much out of it, but they know that they’ll lose a helluva lot under Republicans.

This is a lousy deal for unions. Every election they put a ton of work in, knowing that they won’t really get much more than dribs and drabs if Democrats win. But they’re rightfully scared to death of what Republicans will do to them if they get into office. Democrats are well aware of this, which means they know they don’t need to offer anything more than dribs and drabs. So they don’t.

I keep thinking there ought to be a way for Republicans to leverage this. I’m not sure what it is, but even if they did nothing more than declare a truce of sorts, fear of loss might disappear as a motivating factor for unions. And with that, Democrats might lose a big chunk of support. But I suppose it’ll never happen. Hatred of labor is just bred too deeply into their DNA.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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