Good Luck Protecting Democracy Without Unions

New research shows that unions don’t just boost wages at the workplace — they bring a broad range of social benefits. Simply put, if you don’t have strong unions, you probably don’t have a strong democracy.

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees and other unions rally to protest the Donald Trump administration’s anti-union executive orders on July 25, 2018. (AFGE / Flickr)

If you want a safer workplace, higher wages, or more time to spend away from work entirely, there’s no better tool than a union. But a large body of research has also shown that unionization brings with it a whole host of benefits outside the workplace, yielding societies that are healthier, more democratic, community-minded, and even more abundant in happiness.

In this regard, a series of insights published last month by the Economic Policy Institute confirm and reinforce plenty of what we already knew. Unions, needless to say, exert an overwhelmingly positive influence wherever enough workers are fortunate enough to belong to them — as the EPI’s researchers demonstrate in their analysis.

As you might expect, states with higher union densities also tend to boast higher wages. In the seventeen states with the highest union densities, minimum wages are an average of 19 percent higher than the national average and 40 percent higher than minimum wages in low-union-density states. Residents in high-union-density states also tend to enjoy better health coverage, superior unemployment insurance, and are more likely to benefit from paid parental and medical leave.

EPI’s most novel finding, however, has to do with the correlation between unionization and small-d democracy. In a particularly remarkable data point, its researchers find that the top seventeen states by union density have passed significantly fewer measures designed to restrict access to the ballot box and that, conversely, low-union-density states have passed significantly more. Between 2011 and 2019, a period that has seen a considerable uptick in voter suppression laws, the relationship between unionization and democracy has been particularly difficult to miss:

A majority of low- and medium-union-density states have passed at least one voter restriction bill, while the vast majority of high-union-density states have passed none. Among high-union-density states, 13 out of 17 did not pass any voter restrictions between 2011 and 2019, while only seven of the medium-union-density states and five of the low-union-density states can claim this distinction. Nine medium-union-density states and 12 low-union-density states passed voting restrictions. A total of 26 voter suppression laws were passed among the 17 low-union-density states between 2011 and 2019.

Given the disproportionate impact voter suppression laws tend to have on people of color, it’s very much the case that unions are also a bulwark against racism — black labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph, who in 1925 founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, having played a pivotal role in the struggle for civil rights.

(Asha Banerjee, Margaret Poydock, Celine McNicholas, Ihna Mangundayao, and Ali Sait / Economic Policy Institute)

As to the exact reasons for the broader connection between unionization and democratic well-being, the EPI’s researchers note the long-standing efforts of prominent labor groups in defending and working to expand the franchise, pointing to the work unions have undertaken to protect the vote and link voting rights to workers’ rights. They also cite research from the past decade that found a correlation between unionization and the elevation of more people hailing from working- and middle-class professions to positions of political leadership — offering further evidence of the broader democratic benefits that come from more workers belonging to unions.

Though these links could themselves be the subject of more extensive analysis, the connection between higher unionization and a more robustly democratic ethos in society writ large is pretty straightforward. At their best, after all, unions not only bring workers together to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions but also promote a deeper kind of participation in political life among their members, beyond the relatively passive electoral one offered by liberal institutions. Such participation was critical to building some of the world’s most egalitarian societies, and it’s certainly no accident that decades of falling union membership in America have corresponded with spiraling inequality and a hollowing out of its once powerful working class.

The bottom line? Unionization brings with it societies that are happier, healthier, and more horizontal. But it’s also an essential fortification of democracy itself — and a check against right-wing efforts to roll back democracy.