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Study Shows Unions Are Valuable for Political Knowledge

August 2, 2019

Political Science Ph.D. student David Macdonald's study is featured in this article, reprinted with permission from The Electrical Worker/IBEW web site.

If knowledge is power, then political knowledge is the fuel of an informed democracy. And according to a recent study, unions are a valuable source.

“Democracy suffers if people are making political decisions grounded in ignorance,” wrote study author David Macdonald, a political scientist at Florida State University.

Macdonald published his study in the journal Political Behavior and found that unions increase their members' political knowledge, primarily through two mechanisms: provision of direct information and workplace discussion of politics.

That information often comes in the form of emails, newsletters and campaign mobilization, all of which helps members learn about candidates and their political parties.

“I think part of it has to do with PAC [political action committee] funds,” said Adrian Sauceda, an international representative in the Membership Development department. “Every local urges their members to donate to the PAC fund, and that sparks some great debates because our members hold varying political views.”

That ties in with Macdonald’s second theory, that union members engage in more frequent workplace discussion of politics.

“There have been, and I am sure still are, daily debates on the job and at union functions between members who have differing political views but work side by side,” Sauceda said.

The paper states that union members, particularly those with less formal education, are significantly more knowledgeable than their nonunion counterparts. Specifically, for people with a high school diploma or less, union membership reduces the knowledge gap with college graduates by 34%.

Macdonald noted that those who are better-informed are more likely to vote and pointed to other research suggesting they tend to be more tolerant of opposing opinions. And informed voting clearly impacts election outcomes. By one measure, Macdonald wrote, nearly one in four Americans cast votes that were inconsistent with their preferences.

“This matters, given that several recent presidential elections in the United States were decided by razor thin margins in a few swing states,” Macdonald wrote.

For Republican union members, who voted for the GOP presidential candidate at higher rates in 2016 than in previous elections, there can be contention if the PAC is choosing to endorse a Democrat who has a stronger record on union support, Sauceda said.

That’s when he reminds them their union job is how they feed their family and pay their bills, Sauceda said. “I always tell my Republican co-workers, ‘why are you asking why your union doesn’t support your candidate when you should be asking why your candidate doesn’t support your union?’”

Jammi Juarez, IBEW director of professional and industrial organizing, cautioned that while union members may have more access to political information, they still need to be active themselves.

“My local always did a good job of getting us information regarding politics, but I didn’t pay attention at first,” Juarez said. “It was on the website, they phone banked us, there were mailers, all of the above. But I was a single mom raising my kids. I didn’t have time for anything else.”

Members have to trust their union and then care about the information the local gives them, Juarez said. It’s the union’s job to to create activists by both educating and empowering its members.

“Yes, union members are more politically informed, but only if they have a relationship with their local and care about and trust what they say,” she said.

Last year a Gallup poll showed support for unions to be at a 15-year high, at 62%. An Economic Policy Institute study found that 75% of the increase in union membership in 2017 came from working people under age 35. That coincides with a Pew Research Center survey that found young people are far more likely than older adults to view unions positively.