Union membership is declining, in part because organized labor has not adapted to fundamental changes in the nation's economy. This decline does not mean there is no longer a need for some type of labor institution to speak for workers on such national policy issues as wages, hours, and access to education and training. In fact, such an institution is needed now more than ever, given trends in national policy that not only run counter to the interests of workers, but also may themselves be a consequence of the unions' decline.
Recent studies of unions have focused on the effect of declining union membership on American competitiveness and the economy. Less attention has been paid to its impact on the distribution of political power.
Organized labor played a highly visible role in the last presidential election cycle and recently it was the focus of national attention in the UPS strike, but little has been said about one of organized labor's most critical historical political functions: getting people out to vote.
Political pundits have been quick to attribute compositional changes in the legislature to shifts in the public's political ideology, citing the decline in affiliation with the Democratic Party as evidence of a widespread shift toward conservatism. This ignores the importance of labor unions in affecting voting behavior.
What happens when organizations that were once instrumental in delivering their members to the polls no longer do so? Survey data from the National Election Studies suggest that there is a correlation between the declining influence of unions and declining electoral participation among those who have traditionally voted for the Democratic Party. Most studies of voting behavior reveal that voter participation increases with higher educational and socioeconomic status. However, efforts by unions to get out the vote have over the years shown an exception to this rule. According to recent surveys, union members are, by several percentage points, more likely to vote than nonunion members.
This trend has had significant political consequences, among them a decreased level of identification with the Democratic Party. The ranks of Democrats have diminished between 1952 and 1992, during a time of declining union membership. But affiliation with the Republican Party did not grow proportionately in this period. The number of independent voters increased, and while conventional wisdom suggests that a more independent electorate would be willing to cross party lines when it suits them, the data do not readily support this hypothesis. Compared to Republicans, Democrats are about 3 percent less likely to vote, but independents are actually 20 percent less likely to vote than Republicans. This suggests that the crossover from Democrat to independent is less an indication of a shift in favor of the Republican Party than of a growing tendency not to vote.
These data further suggest a correlation between declining unionism and increasing political disenfranchisement among working Americans. Declining unionism has affected more than the distribution of income and economic power. It has also affected the distribution of political power. Former union members, who in the past would have been reliable Democratic voters, instead are opting out of the political process.
Inasmuch as labor unions have traditionally provided their members representation and voice in the political arena, their decline has effectively stripped workers, particularly nonunion workers, of that voice.
How has this change affected the economic and labor policy debate in Washington? The politics of jobs in recent years has taken the form of a contest between those who think it is the government's responsibility to "save our jobs" and those who view the government's main task as facilitating free trade and competition, even if it means exporting or losing jobs.
Lost in this discussion is the importance of public investment in infrastructure and human capital, the very essence of what is needed to create a more flexible labor market that would serve the interests of both today's workers and the new economy. Sadly, organized labor has showed little interest in following this course, misguidedly pursuing a rigid course of "saving our jobs." If workers had a stronger, more forward-looking voice in Washington, an agenda of public investment might have received broader support.
The unions of the future will have to be more concerned with ensuring that their members are prepared for the changing demands of today's global marketplace. But for such an agenda to move forward in Washington, new institutions that motivate workers to participate in the political process and gain vocal representation are needed. Otherwise, national economic and labor policy will be set and debated without input from those who have the most at stake: American workers.