Why Are Unions Turning Red?

The Midwestern coal-mining town I am from was probably as close to 100% unionized as it was possible to be, in the first decades of the twentieth century, from the UMWA, trade and craft unions, and sympathies of business owners, families, and friends. This typically meant voting for those with progressive (or at least pro-worker) politics, and resisting capital. One scholar called it “the most radical” region in the country.

In 1922 a mine war erupted after an absentee mine owner tried to break a strike there. Twenty of his non-union workers (most from the big city themselves) were tortured and murdered by a union mob. One legal defense was that locals acted in self-defense, trying to preserve their right to exist against the actions of a corporation, the “scabs” it hired, and a private army hired to protect them. When it all blew up, literally, some in the region said, “Better red than dead,” preferring to be denounced as communists than to submit to predatory capital and its politicians, chambers of commerce, and conservative media.

Things had not changed all that much, decades later, when I was a kid. I can remember the cries of “Scab!” and thumps of rocks on semi-trailers during strikes at the local washing-machine factory in the ‘70s.

Then the region began a political turn to a different red, starting with the election of Reagan, who was no friend to unions (and strangely was inducted into the Labor Department’s Hall of Honor last year). By 2016 my home county went for Trump, 68%, when Trump is the sort of capitalist who would Tweet on Labor Day that the AFL-CIO president was “against the working men and women of our country” and “A Dem!” In fact, 40% of all “union households” supported Trump, the greatest number since Reagan.

One young union member I met on midterm voting day in St. Louis said he was voting for Republicans because, “I based it on who my union wanted us to vote for. That’s who I voted for. Because that’s who I stand for—brothers and sisters—and if that’s who they want my union to stand for and help better our union, that’s who I’m going to vote for.”

This, when headlines in the last couple of years have read, “Republicans Take Aim at Federal Unions,” “With All Eyes on Trump, Republicans Are Planning to Break Unions for Good,” “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions,” and “Just How Much Do Republicans Hate Unions?”

This seemingly counter-intuitive shift in political sympathy is a subtopic of what scholars and the media have studied more generally as “cognitive dissonance” and “people voting against their interests.” But of course unions are not the same, and their needs and interests often diverge, especially in concerns over trade agreements, tariffs, and trade wars. NPR reported last week on iron miners in northern Minnesota in favor of steel tariffs, which they believe level the economic field for them, even as they acknowledge that steel end-users, like car manufacturers and their UAW employees, might be against tariffs that keep artificially-cheap foreign steel from reaching the market.

To get a better sense of what is happening, I spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Shermer, who teaches twentieth-century US history, with emphases on capitalism, business, labor, and political ideas and ideologies, in the Department of History at Loyola University Chicago, and co-edited The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination.

Shermer points out that John L. Lewis was a Republican, and there were always moderate or even liberal Republicans, such as Teddy Roosevelt. But, “there has been a systemic animosity towards the labor movement, and it has always been a part of what would call itself American conservatism by the mid-1950s.”

“I think that one of the things that is really important is that in that effort to remake the Republican Party into the country’s conservative party—one of the pillars of which was anti-union—that’s fundamentally a really important shift,” she says.

“I’m not going to give the Democrats a pass,” she adds. “Because you can see Democratic hostility to the movement today. You can also see kind of a ‘meh’ness: We want your votes; we may not necessarily give you anything for them.”

As for the shift, it has been going on a long time. “If you want to talk about this becoming a Republican issue,” Shermer says, “you have to look at Barry Goldwater,” who we may popularly remember from the 1964 election as being against LBJ—the Great Society programs, civil rights legislation—but “he built his entire career on being anti-union. That’s how he made his name. […] Arizona actually had higher union density than California before Goldwater took political office.” Those positions were “what he thought the Republican Party should stand for.”

As for why union members would go for a party that often seems at odds with basic union notions of bargaining collectively, Shermer echoes that when it comes to something like a tariff, “It depends on the unionist that you’re talking to…what sector of the economy that person is in, what industry a person is in. And I would argue the same for climate legislation as well.

“One of the things that has, unfortunately, not been brought up as much is that there actually was a really good Blue-Green partnership, because the labor movement recognized, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a lot of good jobs in moving to a cleaner, more efficient economy, better for our overall well-being. Let’s make sure that those are union jobs.’ But that also puts you right up against the workers who are in those more polluting industries.” Everybody knows coal, she says, “But you’ve got to watch the UAW on this.”

“It’s part of the hard work [not only for both parties but also environmental activists] of talking to people and making sure that these larger questions don’t run over working people.”

As for the issue of collective bargaining, Shermer says that, even bigger than that, “It’s about a worker’s right to have a say in the job, and also, to be honest, in the voting booth. And that’s why unions are such a huge target for the Republican Party, because unions not only organize people on the shop floor; they organize them to go out on election day. And that’s why when you target one on the shop floor, it has this ripple effect in terms of society.”

“The issue is ensuring people’s rights on the job. To think about our Fourth Amendment, the Freedom of Assembly—that’s what collective bargaining and joining a union is all about. We’ve lost that.” This used to be “sacrosanct,” Shermer says.

I mention to Dr. Shermer that things were rough in the early days of unions in the country, especially in my home region, and Shermer says, “They’re rough now too.” She says we think about people physically getting hurt, “But what about the violence of taking someone’s right away to join a union? I feel the same away about the trade war. Who’s being hurt? You know, there are real casualties.

“The farmers are a casualty. What remains of our steel industry: that’s a casualty. And we have to recognize that it may not be a gunshot wound, which is what we’re typically thinking of with war…but what we’re seeing is despair. Look at the suicide rate. That’s the main contributor to our continued decline in life expectancy in this country for the past four years. […] We have to recognize that it’s just a different kind of violence.”

Along with shifting political alliances, Shermer notes the recent teacher actions, a Teamsters strike with Coca-Cola, and other labor issues in the news. “There’s just a lot going on, she says.” She has recently taught political economy surveys and a course in political fiction, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to The Hunger Games, to students who have thought of labor strife as mostly historical—until recently.

“What’s if it’s always been a struggle?” Shermer asks.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.