Union Membership and White Workers’ Racial Attitudes

A new study finds that U.S. union membership lowers white workers’ “racial resentment.” Eric Dirnbach explores what this means for the labor movement and the fight against white nationalism.

The attack at the U.S. Capitol reinvigorated a discussion of the politics of Trump supporters. Trumpist politics encompass a range of attitudes, including traditional GOP concerns and populist economic views, to racism, sexism, homophobia and an anti-immigrant stance, to the embrace of various conspiracy theories. In its more extreme form, this is often described as “white nationalism,” which promotes a vision of the U.S. as a country primarily for white people, often within a conservative Christian worldview.

In the 2020 election, while Trump drew the support of a majority of upper class voters, exit polls showed that Trump also got the support of 44% of voters with income less than $50,000 and 67% of white voters without a college degree. While these groups don’t neatly coincide with the mainstream concept of the “white working class,” we can conclude that tens of millions of white workers hold some version of conservative politics.

The labor movement, with its 14.3 million members, is often seen, especially on the left, as an actual and potential progressive force to oppose the conservative or “white nationalist” agenda. 

Union Members and Racial Attitudes

In this political environment, a paper published last year, “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics,” has gotten some attention because of the interesting findings regarding white union members’ racial attitudes. This paper focuses on one key part of the conservative mix of issues – white resentment toward Black people. They ask an important question – does being a union member change white workers’ politics on race?

The researchers found that white union members are less racially resentful than white non-union members by 4.7 – 6.3% of the racial resentment scale. Racial resentment is a measure of attitudes on race obtained through survey responses to questions that reveal racist attitudes. This paper used data from three large survey projects, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), the American National Election Study (ANES), and the Voter Survey Group. Two of the survey questions they used are below, with five possible answers ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The answers to the questions are translated into racial resentment scores.

  • The Irish, Italians, Jews, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
  • It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

Now to some extent it could be that white union members happen to be more progressive than non-members since more progressive workers may be likelier to join unions. The researchers looked more closely at this to determine the impact union membership had on the same workers over time after they joined a union. What they found is fascinating. Over the period from 2010 to 2016, becoming a union member reduced white workers’ racial resentment by 4.1 – 5.5% of the scale. They also see similar shifts in increasing support for policies that benefit African Americans, including affirmative action programs. They conclude that all of these are significant shifts and are equal to or greater than other factors such as education or gender, whereas age and income have no impact on racial resentment.

Reasons for this Shift 

In the paper, the authors discuss several possible reasons for this change. An obvious possibility is that unions engage in some form of political education. Here’s an example of recent educational materials from the AFL-CIO Racial and Economic Justice Commission.

Moreover, unions are often composed of members from various racial backgrounds, and successful unions have these members work together in solidarity, which can shift members’ attitudes over time. In an interview with one of the authors, Jake Grumbach, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, he discusses these dynamics,

Rather, it’s something about unions, and we think, first, it’s just the legacy, like the incentives facing unions as organizations and union leadership. They have multiracial workforces, and to expand the union, you better have that workforce pulling in the same direction. That’s the first practical term. That’s obvious unionism.

The second thing is the way unions are organized. Not every union does this amazingly, but some are more connected. Some are more small-D democratic and really have more frequent political meetings and engage their memberships and train leaders from the rank and file. That’s a powerful organizational mechanism. This happens at work, where people spend most of their lives.

A third reason examined by the authors is that most unions encourage support for the Democratic Party, which itself depends on an inter-racial coalition and promotes racial tolerance. Their data on this is interesting, though not conclusive. It appears that white union members with lower racial resentment are primarily identified with Democratic Party affiliation. So those members with lower scores are also Democratic Party voters, which makes some sense. However, the shift in white union members’ racial resentment scores over time after joining a union is only slightly accounted for by Democratic Party affiliation. 

I asked Professor Grumbach about this and he cautions against making strong claims here because there isn’t enough data yet. But what this could indicate is that white union members who don’t identify as Democrats experience the reduction in racial resentment through the other means we’ve discussed. These would primarily be the white conservative union members being moved toward more racial tolerance through political education, solidarity building, or other avenues. That’s a really exciting finding and hopefully can be further supported

Indeed, previous studies have also found an impact of union education and activity on political identity and participation. Another recent paper has found that unions impact the political knowledge of their members through providing information and fostering workplace discussion. That research showed that 65% of union members discussed politics at work “sometimes” or “a lot,” compared with 52% of non-union members, and were also more likely to discuss politics during most days of the work week. This study also found that union membership increased political knowledge for less formally educated workers. Moreover, a study of political identification across a number of countries found that union membership increased political knowledge and shifted members’ self identity to the left. Another research project found that unions’ positions on trade had a significant influence on members’ attitudes, showing the impacts of political education.  Union members have been found to have a higher participation than non-members in a range of political activities, are more often asked to participate in politics, are 73-95% more likely to participate in a protest and also self-identify as more left-leaning, with these effects again found to be strongest for workers with the least formal education.

The unions and racial resentment paper authors did an interesting check on the idea that it is simply inter-racial proximity that reduces white racial resentment, by looking at military service. The military is racially diverse and therefore we might expect the racial resentment of white members to shift as they encounter, talk with, and work together with people of color. However, they find no evidence that military service has this impact. They conclude that a conscious organizational anti-racism strategy and practice is critical,

Whereas the U.S. military branches heavily regulate political discourse and activity by service members, unions actively facilitate political discussion— including discussion with explicitly anti-racist messaging.

These results suggest that unions that practice multi-racial solidarity and have progressive political education are more likely to move conservative white union members toward more progressive attitudes on race. I’m reminded of an amazing historical example of this in the old IWW Local 8 in Philadelphia. Founded in 1913, it was the most powerful union among the multi-racial workforce of thousands of dockworkers for a decade. One key solidarity practice was to desegregate work gangs and all union committees and activities, which strengthened them in their fights with the employers. After years of this, the white workers rejected the idea of forming their own whites-only local, as was common in most other unions. 

I don’t want to oversell this impact of moving workers to the left on all issues though. The researchers also checked to see whether unions shifted members toward some other socially liberal views, such as abortion rights and the death penalty, and found little change. Other studies have also seen similar results. Though some research has found that union members tend to self-identify more to the left, that’s certainly not true for all issues. Perhaps we can understand this as unions can have the most impact on members’ political views regarding issues most directly related to union function and activity, such as economics and racial issues, and less so on other topics.

But Unions Still Have a Problem

In the 2020 election, 40% of union household members voted for Trump. This is lower than the 49% of non-union households, but this strikes many of us as alarmingly high. The motivation for these votes no doubt vary from a lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats, to more solid support for Trump. A recent article argues that union members who are Trump supporters need to be seriously engaged and reorganized.

Moreover, a recent analysis of union members’ political attitudes shows that they are much more complicated, and more conservative, than we often assume. In dealing with conservative views among members, the analysis concludes that too often unions engage in “infrequent and shallow engagement with members only during election cycles—something with little potential to change underlying opinions” which I think is too often true.

Given this large percentage of white union members that support some form of Trumpism, and who may have racial resentment, there is still a lot of work to do within the labor movement. Unions vary tremendously in practices that could change racial resentment. Some union locals are fairly dysfunctional, with members not knowing much about their union, not having a copy of their contract, not knowing their union steward, never going to union meetings, etc. A study on new union member orientations found that only 46% of new members had any contact with their union during their first month of employment, and only one-third of new members ever had any union new hire orientation.

In this environment, conservative white union members may be largely checked out and never undergo political education or any kind of militant union fight. They may never get to work closely in solidarity with workers of color in their union, and their racial resentment will never really be challenged.

Other more dynamic unions will do much better on all these issues. Unions that are democratic, have good attendance and political debates at union meetings, have an active stewards network and members involved in enforcing standards on their shop floor, and militant strikes and picket lines, will more likely have workers of various racial backgrounds talking with each other and working together in solidarity.

And it needs to be emphasized that this shouldn’t be about delivering more votes to Democrats. Unions practicing multi-racial solidarity strengthens the labor movement and will help it grow and win better wages, benefits and working conditions. This is good and necessary for its own sake. More progressive voting may follow.

This kind of data suggests some fascinating further research. Does the practice of multi-racial solidarity matter more than political education or other factors? What democratic and militant union practices forge the most multi-racial solidarity? What kind of union political education works best? Which unions are most successful at shifting conservative members’ attitudes, and how do they do it? Where are the case studies of union members who moved away from racial resentment, and why did they do it?

The Labor Movement against White Nationalism

One of the reasons we may be seeing so much conservative politics among white workers is that the labor movement is too small, at only about 11% of the workforce. Most white workers don’t experience multi-racial union solidarity and union political education. I discussed this in more detail on a recent Laborlines podcast interview

Indeed, in a fascinating footnote in the paper, the authors state that long term union decline means an estimated 12% of white workers have higher racial resentment than they would have absent union decline. As the paper concludes about unions:

As a critical organization associated with promoting racial toleration weakens in organizational reach, its relative influence over political outcomes and the formation of sociocultural identities, particularly within the white working class, will likely continue to weaken with it. 

Unions should do everything they can to be inclusive, democratic organizations based on solidarity among members, with a social justice framework. In my view, it’s also critical to have a socialist/anti-capitalist analysis that strengthens class consciousness, because this provides a worldview in opposition to toxic white nationalism, and also status-quo neoliberalism. This framework helps workers who have a legitimate distrust of the Democratic Party, or who correctly see that the capitalist system is rigged against them, but otherwise might seek answers in right-wing ideology.  

White nationalism is a threat primarily because it divides and weakens the working class. In the competition of ideologies that help folks make sense of the world, an anti-capitalist labor solidarity framework is a powerful one, which can actually deliver material benefits, but most workers never encounter it. Of course this means we must also grow the labor movement dramatically. If labor doesn’t organize tens of millions more workers, possibly the white nationalists will.  

Eric Dirnbach

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