In Middle America, Unions and Democrats Are Sleepwalking Into the Grave

By not organizing in decimated post-industrial towns, we’re ceding ground to the right wing.

Hamilton Nolan

Bedford, Indiana. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

There is nothing the Democratic Party loves more than indulging in some existential hand wringing over its declining popularity in the crumbling American heartland. Indeed, this was the favorite pundit pastime of the entire Trump era. Amid the wailing over cultural differences and economic insecurity, a rarely heard word is unions.” Yet, a new report adds to the evidence that the fate of the Democratic Party is intimately tied to the decline of union power. It’s also one more sign that the labor movement itself needs to throw everything it has into new organizing with a fervor that has been lacking in our lifetimes.

The new analysis, by several Democratic consultants, parses election results at a county level to argue that the simple narrative that Democrats win urban areas, Republicans win rural areas, and the suburbs are a battleground, is simplistic and misleading. In fact, the report finds that Democrats’ biggest losses in the 2020 election came in factory town” counties with smaller cities that traditionally relied on manufacturing employment — counties that account for 40% of all voters. Across 10 states in the Midwest and Northeast that comprise the fading heart of America’s former manufacturing hubs, Democrats lost 2.6 million votes between Obama’s election in 2012 and Biden’s in 2020. That is a million more votes than Democrats gained in those states’ cities and suburbs. In other words, across vital battleground states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, the Democratic Party is most vulnerable in the very places that have been most acutely devastated by the decline of American manufacturing jobs over the past two decades.

But this is not just a typical story of economic hopelessness. It is, more accurately, a story of the decline of the power of organized labor. Because the report finds that more than 90% of the decline in union members that the United States suffered between 2010 and 2020 was focused in nine of the states studied. On average, our nine states lost 10% of their union membership over 10 years — a rate three times greater than the U.S. average,” the report finds. So, within the very swing states that the Democratic Party needs to win to hold onto the White House, the institution of union membership is crumbling faster than anywhere else in the country. 

Trivially, this decline is due to the familiar Republican legal and regulatory and economic attacks on organized labor, like right to work” laws that make it harder to organize and maintain unions. That is true, as far as it goes. But it is not the message that the political class should take away from this. 

For the labor movement, the story here is that as traditionally unionized manufacturing jobs disappeared, unions failed to organize the next set of (worse) jobs that rose up to take their place in these left-behind towns. Global capitalism is a fearsome beast. Reining in the post-NAFTA decimation of the U.S. manufacturing economy is a job that will require institutions bigger than unions. What unions can do, and must do, and have not done, is to focus at all times on the working people themselves. If the factories leave, and people go work at the Dollar General, then unions need to unionize the Dollar General. That has absolutely not been done. Nor has it even been attempted on any reasonable scale. Workers in these devastated areas live in the economy of 2021, and unions are still living in the economy of 1970, in their own minds. It is fine to fight as hard as possible to retain good union jobs. But if you lose them, you still need to organize the people who are left behind. Wake the fuck up and build the next generation of unions in these places. The labor movement is very, very late to this job. 

And for the Democrats, the lesson here is that seeing unions as a simple interest group that exists to provide money and door-knockers to the Democratic Party is a losing proposition. Prior to Biden, the post-Reagan Democratic presidents have mostly assumed that since they weren’t actively persecuting unions like Republicans were, that was enough. Wrong. The Democratic Party has a direct interest in the rebuilding of the labor movement. If it is not actively assisting unions (with more than words) in the project of organizing millions and millions of workers who have been left behind in our modern Amazonified capitalist world, it is idiotically fiddling while its base burns. A strong and vibrant and well-functioning union can be the difference between a laid-off factory worker becoming an advocate for a progressive world, or falling into a MAGA pit. 

The union losses in these factory towns have hit hard. These were often unions that have deep roots in the community. They were institutions. They were part of the social and political fabric of those cities. They served as the safety net that picked up where the government’s broken safety net failed. By allowing the closure of factories to result also in the permanent erasure of strong unions, we have condemned these communities twice over. Not only have they lost their jobs; they have lost their collective security, right when they need it most. 

The good news is that broad investment in union organizing can pay more dividends than political pundits even suspect. Yes, unions raise wages and improve benefits and workplace safety and generally provide direct positive economic impacts that are sorely needed. Beyond that, though, the process of organizing new unions is also one that transforms people themselves. It is often the only real demonstration of the power of solidarity and democracy that anyone will ever personally experience. The qualities instilled by union organizing campaigns tend to give working people a way to see the world that aligns with broadly progressive values: Unity with everyone, equality, fighting for justice against the rich. The Democratic Party — especially the worthwhile part of the Democratic Party — needs people to believe these things, if it is going to build a lasting majority. And far more importantly, humans need these things, to survive and thrive. 

Unions have a lot of work to do. Get to organizing, or we all keep sinking together.

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.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.