Why We Need Union Halls in Every Town

Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol’s Rust Belt Union Blues makes a compelling case that left-wing success in the rust belt depends on reviving the presence and stature of unions — and the sense of social connection they offer — in local communities.

Striking coal miners hold a strike meeting in a United Mine Workers of America union hall in August of 1993 in Boonville, Indiana. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

Progressives have rightly sounded the alarm about the dire state of labor in the United States for decades. Today union density in the private sector stands at just 6 percent, down from a high of over 30 percent in the 1960s, and the labor movement exerts less influence in American politics than it has since the 1920s.

The effects of labor’s weakness are easy to predict: mass unionization went hand in hand with decreased income inequality and higher wages for workers and increased job security and working conditions, in addition to decreasing gender and racial economic disparities and encouraging pro-worker legislation like minimum wage standards and paid leave. Not surprisingly, then, American workers do not feel great, and many commentators correctly argue that the only cure is a large-scale revival of the labor movement.

Yet as Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol argue in their new book Rust Belt Union Blues, even the daunting task of organizing new workers into unions on a mass scale to reverse decades of tragic decline is only half the battle. Unions not only need to add new members to their roles, but they also must be present in communities in a way that they haven’t been for a long time; they have to mean something in the daily experiences of workers and the communities where they live. Without this key second ingredient, workers will not look to unions anywhere beyond the narrow confines of the bargaining table, and unions’ historic role as an effective conveyor belt for connecting working-class communities to progressive politics will never be restored.

Since there is no other likely institutional force in American politics that can play a similar role, the bottom line of their story is that any future for majoritarian egalitarian politics rests on successfully embedding unions into the lives of people across the United States.

The Union Man and the Union Town

Newman and Skocpol set out to answer the question of why unions don’t resonate with people today like they once did, particularly in rust-belt communities like those in western Pennsylvania — the focus of their book — where unions (and the Democratic Party) were once a trusted, organic fixture of daily life, but are now largely absent and viewed with suspicion. Even among the people who are in unions, however, unions typically mean much less to their daily lives and their personal identities than was once the case.

While many argue that the declining influence of unions in the rust belt can be attributed to the increasing importance of cultural conservatism in these communities, Newman and Skocpol argue, to the contrary, that there is little evidence working-class communities have become more conservative over the past several decades: they were culturally conservative in the 1960s, and they still are today. Instead, they argue, the reason why unions don’t resonate with people as much anymore in blue-collar professions is because unions have become disconnected from the ordinary lives of workers, even when workers are formally members of those unions.

In the heyday of rust-belt union towns during the 1960s and 1970s, unions were deeply embedded in the social, cultural, and political fabric of local communities. For one thing, being a “union man” carried deep meaning. Being a union man meant you were part of a broader community of solidarity and would always have your union brothers’ back through thick and thin. It meant having an awareness of how bad things were before unions came to town in the 1930s or 1940s — and therefore a visceral understanding of the importance of unions — and it meant occupational pride.

And being a union man did not stop at the factory gates: unions helped organize recreational leagues and community events. They were active in churches, schools, and politics. Unions were also connected to ethnic and fraternal groups, making them key organizations in communities. Union members “attended the same churches, their children attended the same schools, their stay-at-home wives exchanged recipes and baby-sitting favors, and they socialized together at neighborhood diners and bars.” Union halls were also a key site of community events in many towns. Union halls were a symbol of unions’ permanence in communities. Union practices also typically mirrored those of fraternal and ethnic associations in terms of the rituals, meeting styles, etc. employed, making unions seem natural in communities.

In turn, the deep well of good will and trust that unions built up in local communities translated into very real but subtle gains for progressive politics; there was simply a social expectation around voting for union candidates, reinforced through a dense web of union-related geographic, personal, and social ties. Yes, unions endorsed candidates, but direct political lobbying was not the main reason why people voted for union (almost always Democratic) candidates. To cap it off, people got most of their basic political information from union publications, so more progressive views on different topical issues of the day also had an organic means of dissemination throughout rust-belt communities.

The Fall

While far from idyllic — women and people of color were brought into the union fold only through sustained poking and prodding, and women were largely relegated to a subordinate status in public life — 1960s- and 1970s-era rust-belt America, according to Newman and Skocpol, nonetheless demonstrates how progressive institutions can play a fundamental role in the lives and communities of working people, and reap large political rewards in the process.

Yet this fragile ecosystem depended almost entirely on the postwar economic boom that fueled rapid growth in the steel mills of Allegheny, Beaver, and other western Pennsylvania counties. Once European and Japanese competition began ramping up in 1960s, and the neoliberal onslaught to roll back the New Deal started gaining steam by the late 1970s, the fate of US manufacturing jobs was largely sealed, and the union town began its inexorable decline.

Unions tried to stop the downfall of their industries, in some cases by trying to use eminent domain to takeover factories, but this failed. There were also broader attempts to create publicly controlled factories along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), such as the “Steel Valley Authority” (SVA) and the “Tri-State Conference on Steel” (TCS). Though they generated a great deal of community support, these efforts were ultimately no match to the overwhelming opposition of employers.

Communities started to feel that unions simply couldn’t protect jobs and that it made more sense to take an individual rather than collective path. Workers focused more and more on just doing whatever they could to save their own jobs, and increased competition for scarcer jobs meant less solidarity and more weariness toward strikes.

Workers’ declining faith in unions was exacerbated by the institutions’ declining presence in local communities. As unions reasonably sought to channel their rapidly diminishing resources into emergency political advocacy, union little league sponsorships ended, Labor Day parades were scaled back or canceled, local union publications were suspended, and union halls were shuttered or turned into food banks. As a result, unions’ presence in towns gradually diminished, and with it their relevance in the daily lives of working people. Even those few still in unions increasingly ignored (if they even listened to) their distant national union leaders.

The Void Is Filled

As unions took their leave from the rust-belt stage, a conservative trifecta of large employers, Evangelical Churches, and increasingly ubiquitous gun clubs stepped in to fill the void. Companies began to offer services and benefits to communities that unions once did, leading working people to identify more with the company than with unions. Gun clubs and Evangelical churches offered social and cultural outlets that unions once provided: socializing in communities now happens around gun clubs rather than unions. And just like unions in the past, gun clubs and Evangelical churches subtly disseminate a range of cultural and political ideas consistent with their worldview that are reinforced through a range of social networks. Conservative social values and political commitments made their way organically into the common sense of rust-belt communities in just the same way that progressive union values once did.

The upshot of this conservative filling of the void is that rust-belt communities today are more likely to understand their dissatisfaction through the lens of cultural resentment at coastal elites (“Rich Men North of Richmond”) than through a class lens, as they once would have done. Many workers who might have once voted Democratic thanks to their union commitments now say they’re voting for the GOP because the party better represents “who they are.” The result, in combination with a large exodus of young people from rust-belt communities, has been the increasing dominance of Republican politics in these areas and rejection of Democrats.

Bringing Union Halls Back to Main Street

Though this picture is bleak, for Newman and Skocpol all hope is not lost. As their analysis of how unions and later gun clubs and Evangelical churches help to shape the cultural terrain of rust-belt communities, it is not inevitable that rust-belt area workers will hold views incompatible with progressive politics; this depends a great deal on the broader social ecosystem in which they live.

The solution for Newman and Skocpol is surprisingly simple: unions need to do a better job of embedding in communities and connecting with members if they want to get back to the role they once played:

No matter how strapped for resources unions may be, high-level leaders need to realize that efforts to build and reinforce buy-in and community ties beyond as well as within workplaces are not an expendable luxury; such efforts are vital to the member solidarity that is a core ingredient of organized labor clout in the economy and politics. A shared sense of pride among existing union members is also import to new member recruitment; new members need to hear not only that unions collect dues but also that they offer a community of brothers and sisters who “have each other’s back” for contract negotiations and much more.

Unions (and progressive politicians) need to be present in these communities year-round, even in places where right now the politics look hopeless; this must be a long-term process of organization building, not a short-term process of vote maximization in the next election. For Newman and Skocpol there is no shortcut around this likely decades-long process of re-embedding, but the dividends for working people and American democracy make them feel it is worth the cost.

Nostalgia for an Unrecoverable Past?

Re-embedding unions in local communities on a mass scale is a very attractive idea that helpfully focuses our attention on the critical role played by deep social and cultural networks in shaping political attitudes and behaviors. Yet the compelling story Newman and Skocpol tell about the interlocking economic, social, political, and cultural factors that led to unions’ decline in rust-belt areas begs the question of why we should expect a turnaround along the lines they suggest.

There are no clear political-economic changes on the horizon that would provide the material foundation for an economic renaissance in these communities — despite important advances in the direction of industrial policy and investing in manufacturing jobs embodied by Biden-era legislation. Nor is it easy to imagine how anything like the mutually reinforcing ecosystem of social, political, and cultural organizations in midcentury rust-belt America could be replicated or even approximated today given the vastly different nature of work and the fragmented nature of social organizations that are no longer tied to place in the way they once were.

First, as Newman and Skocpol describe, the geographic distribution of workers has changed dramatically over the past four decades. On the one hand, workers must travel farther and farther to work and cannot maintain strong social ties at work even if they want to. Coworkers can’t socialize, because they don’t have time to just go out and get a beer after work (they may have to drive hours home, and, unlike in the mid-twentieth century, are likely to have more child-rearing responsibilities). This means that most workers today simply can’t develop the strong shared sense of identity that they could in the past. On the other hand, workers are much less likely to work at the same place as their neighbors (or really anyone in their immediate community), so that crucial mechanism that allowed unions to gain such a strong foothold in communities is no longer present.

What’s more, communities today are much more likely to be formed online, where forging deep and lasting social ties is difficult — if not impossible. In turn, the kinds of dense in-person associations Newman and Skocpol identify as key sites for reinforcing the role of unions in local communities — from ethnic societies to fraternal associations — no longer exist or are greatly diminished. All of this makes one wonder if Newman and Skocpol’s clarion call for a union rust-belt revival is more nostalgic than strategic.

The Road Ahead

That said, Newman and Skocpol are undeniably correct in their insistence that in the long-term a durable progressive working-class coalition in the United States depends not just on growing the ranks of labor but also on making unions a central feature in the lives and communities of working people. Newman and Skocpol offer the somewhat surprising case of building trade unions as a possible model.

Given that the trades always had to cover a large geographic area, they — unlike place-based industrial unions — had to constantly find ways to build connections between dispersed members. This has enabled building-trades unions to sustain themselves through the massive changes of the neoliberal era in a way that other unions could not.

If the rust-belt union revival is to succeed, even in part, it will likely take hybrid in-person and virtual forms, and mix place-based community organizing with creative approaches to maintaining long-distance solidarities. The road ahead is long and the path to success unclear, but Newman and Skocpol’s diagnosis of the causes and basic solution to the problem of working-class dealignment in the rust belt is right on the mark.