Democrats Don't Grasp That Unions Can Transform the Electorate

Unions are machines for producing people who wouldn’t be satisfied with Joe Manchin’s obstinance.

Hamilton Nolan

Striking coal miners in 1993, foreseeing Joe Manchin. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Our political discussions often focus on how our side can seize an advantage in the context of a sharply divided electorate. Political parties try to motivate their voters and depress voters on the other side — elections are contested for tiny slices of moderates” or undecided voters,” groups that grow ever smaller as polarization increases. But what if there was a tool that could actually transform the way that people think, as voters and as citizens in a functioning democracy? There is such a tool: unions. America in general, and the Democratic Party in particular, needs to start taking the transformative power of unions more seriously. 

Apart from schools — themselves perpetually contested ideological battlegrounds, proxy wars for federal, state, and local political fights over how to properly indoctrinate our kids — unions are probably the single most powerful institution in America capable of actually changing people’s minds about what they believe. Most institutions, from churches to political parties, serve mostly to round up people that already agree and try to turn them into a strong, coherent army on the political battlefield. Unions, on the other hand, take in everyone, based on the fact that they work somewhere, and then they give them the experience of participating in a democratic institution that works towards common goals. Unions are an education not in party politics, but in actual democracy — coming together with a broad group of people, with all sorts of separate identities, to fight for your own rights. Most Americans never get that sort of democratic experience anywhere else in their lives. A properly functioning union offers people the lived experience that no political buzzword or argument can ever match. 

Only about 10% of Americans are union members, meaning that 90% of Americans have no opportunity to taste this transformative, unifying political power. Bernie Sanders is not president today because America’s labor movement is too weak. By this I don’t mean that more union members would have given more money or knocked more doors for Bernie. I mean that if significantly more Americans had the lived experience of organizing with their coworkers and fighting for a contract against a powerful boss while witnessing the power of solidarity, they would have been naturally more predisposed to accepting Bernie Sanders’ political beliefs. Democratic socialism” as a pure political phrase will always be shoved into a box in the corner of the political spectrum, subjected to rampant scaremongering and red-baiting. But democratic socialism as something that you participated in as a working person when you came together with your colleagues to win significant life improvements is not something that any Fox News host can talk you out of. It is your life, and its benefits are tangible. Anyone who has been involved in union campaigns has witnessed this sort of personal evolution countless times. Our mainstream political discourse generally tries to deceive people. That becomes much harder when people have a counterpoint to the lies in their own lives, in the form of a union. 

America is a racist country. America is also a segregated country. One feeds the other. Many white Americans have few places in their lives where they genuinely interact with people of other races as equals, and as allies. Unions are one of the few places where that can happen. And indeed, we know that unions serve to make white people less racist. A recent study from the American Journal of Political Science found that Cross-sectional analyses consistently show that white union members have lower racial resentment and greater support for policies that benefit African Americans,” and that gaining union membership between 2010 and 2016 reduced racial resentment among white workers.” Unions are one of the very few institutions that can change people — not by arguing with them, but by letting them do something that constitutes the best form of proof.

Right now, Sen. Joe Manchin is holding up the entire Democratic Party agenda by refusing to back the For the People Act voting rights bill or to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate. He can do this because he feels politically invincible in the state of West Virginia. Today, civil rights leaders are meeting with Manchin to beg him to change his mind, but few people think this will have any effect. 

West Virginia used to be one of the most radical states in America for organized labor. The Mine Wars” waged by its union members against rapacious capitalists are legendary. Today, less than 11% of West Virginians are union members. How might Joe Manchin’s political calculus be different if that figure were 20%, or 40%? Right now, Black and white union members of the United Mine Workers in Alabama are standing together on a picket line, where they have been for two months, enduring hardship and mutual sacrifice for a common goal. They will be changed by that experience. As will their families, and their children. Just as people are transformed by going to war, so too are they transformed by the fight for their own labor rights — the fight to survive in an economic system that seems always to be closing in from all sides. 

The Democratic Party has always been a fair weather friend to the labor movement. Political operatives look at the electorate exactly as it is right now, and ponder how to divide it up to their advantage. But there is a wiser path, of looking at the electorate as it is now and imagining what needs to happen to change it. Even if Democrats are too cynical to care about the underlying moral principles that unions promote, they should be astute enough to understand that increasing the number of union members will naturally produce an electorate more receptive to progressive policy goals. In addition to things like reducing inequality and helping to promote living wages, Democrats should be motivated by this extremely practical reality to do everything they can to promote unionization. 

This sort of transformation will require more than just catering to existing unions; it will also mean growing unions, to ensure that millions more Americans can have the experience that unions offer. Since the PRO Act is — let’s be honest — not going to pass right now, the most powerful thing the Biden administration could do to achieve this goal would be to directly fund new union organizing. Unions know how to organize, but even the ones that want to do so don’t have enough resources to do it on a large scale. The government can provide those resources. This is the path forward. 

We do not currently have enough union members in America to become a potent enough force in the electorate to change the laws. So instead, give us the money to create enough union members. We will change the hearts of the people. Then we will change the laws. Then we will change the country. 

Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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