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Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 stunned the nation in part because white, working-class voters helped him crack open the Democratic blue wall of Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Trump succeeded in these states and among the white workers in them because we live not in a post-truth world, but in a post-union one. Strong unions would have helped convince white workers to turn out and vote for Democrats, and would have offered them an alternative to Trump’s narrative that blacks and immigrants are to blame for stagnant wages. But Trump capitalized on declining union strength in key Midwestern states that had previously been dependably Democratic.
An early harbinger of Trump’s Midwestern victories was West Virginia, once a reliably progressive state. West Virginia was the base of the United Mine Workers (UMW), a racially progressive union that was one of the few to organize biracial locals in the South during the Jim Crow era. Miners joked that “we’re all black down there,” because even the white union members emerged from the mines with black coal dust coating their faces.
But West Virginia is no longer true blue, but deep red. Its political transformation has gone hand in hand with the decline of unions, especially the UMW, within the state. In 1982, 30.5 percent of West Virginia's workforce was organized, the second-highest union density rate of any state in the country. Thirty-three years later, in 2015, only 12 percent of workers belonged to a union, and the Mountain State's ranking in union density is no longer even in the top third. In 2016, as if to punctuate its retreat from unionism, West Virginia passed a right-to-work law that will further hasten the decline of unions within the state.
This decline now threatens the entire Midwest. Iowa, which turned from blue to red in 2016, was once the home of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, with unionized plants in Ottumwa, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City, and other small towns throughout the Hawkeye state. Meatpackers once received above-average wages in manufacturing, and belonged to the most racially progressive union in the U.S. For example, the Packinghouse Workers union was an early and generous supporter of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Today, meatpacking plants in Iowa are non-union, pay is below the median wage in manufacturing, and most meatpacking jobs are held by immigrants instead of native whites.
Now let’s turn to Wisconsin. In 2005, 16.1 percent of all workers in Wisconsin belonged to a union. Ten years later, by 2015, that number had been cut by almost half. Over the course of that decade, no state has lost a larger percentage of its unionized workforce than Wisconsin, as union membership plummeted from 410,000 in 2005 to just 223,000 in 2015. Ten years ago, Wisconsin was in the top fifth of states in union density; now it is in the second-to-last quintile.
The pattern is the same in Michigan, which like Wisconsin has recently become a right-to-work state. Union density in Michigan has fallen from 44 percent in1964 to just 15 percent in 2015. Again, narrowing the timeframe to just the last ten years, Michigan is third, behind only Wisconsin and Arizona, in registering the steepest drop in union density of any state in the union over the last decade.
All this matters because of the powerful role unions play in politically mobilizing and educating their members. Unions articulate and transmit social democratic values and a sense of class solidarity to their members. And the more unions deliver at the bargaining table, the more their members are willing to accept political direction from them.
For example, during the 1950s, when massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision was sweeping the South, union leaders fought segregationists for the hearts and minds of their members. They defended keeping integrated public schools open in opposition to segregationists who wanted to close them. They defended federal law in opposition to states’ rights advocates who wanted to nullify it. And they warned members to beware of racial demagogues whose real agenda was to undermine unions. Simple lessons, to be sure, but in the din and fury that gripped the South after Brown, white workers in the South were exposed to them for the first time.
Today’s unions, however, find it harder to socialize their members or reach new ones with an alternative, more inclusive narrative that can compete with what right-wing populists like Trump offer. Unions now deliver less of a wage premium, which reduces the political legitimacy members are willing to grant them. And their ability to organize is increasingly blocked by intransigent employers.
It’s as if there is a virus infecting members of the white working class, and the only organization that can inoculate them and provide the antidote has been eviscerated and hollowed out. There are fewer distributors of the vaccine, and the medicine they prescribe is too weak to cure and stop the spread of the disease.
The attraction of the white working class to Trump is not about “the wages of whiteness,” or defending white male privilege. Certainly, there are “deplorables” among them, just as there are racists and xenophobes among the middle and upper-classes. Let’s not romanticize white workers. But the bottom line is that unions are no longer able to reach such workers to challenge these values. In the absence of unions, disaffected and marginalized workers are increasingly susceptible to racism and xenophobia.
The rise of Trumpism would not have been possible without the dismantling of the labor movement that preceded it. Unions are among the few organizations with the institutional means to transmit progressive values to workers, and workers view political socialization by unions as legitimate because they defend their interests at work. But with the demise of the labor movement, their signal is weaker, and a smaller percentage of the workforce is organized to receive it.
Alan Draper holds the Michael W. Ranger ‘80 and Virginia R. Ranger P’17 Professorship in Government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. His research interests include labor and the civil rights movement. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org