Although one in every four jobs in the U.S. is considered low-wage—encompassing millions of jobs held by Republicans and Democrats alike—little is known about partisans’ views on policies that govern the workplace. This study examines the issue using two separate national surveys and administrative data to assess partisan attitudes toward two components of labor policy: (1) support for unionization; and (2) the role of labor unions in the workplace. The close association between labor unions and Democrats anticipates predictable attitudinal differences among partisans. However, this presupposes the absence of alternative policy reasoning. The results indicate that experience constitutes such an alternative: lower-income Republicans and Republicans from union households break from party cues and offer support for worker unionization—notably in low-wage industries including fast-food and retail—and see labor unions as important institutions that improve working conditions and job security. Democrats who come from union households offer more consistent and greater support for worker unionization than non-union Democrats, and like union Republicans, see unions as important institutions in the workplace. The results point to the importance of experience and the workplace for policy attitudes. The findings suggest that labor policy may constitute an important, if overlooked, domain with cross-cutting attitudinal cleavages based, to some extent, on one’s place in the labor market, rather than one’s place in partisan politics.
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Low-wage work is defined as earning below two-thirds of the national median gross hourly earnings (Appelbaum and Schmitt 2009, p. 1908).
The CCES is a large, nationally stratified sample that is conducted before and after elections.
Household Income: Lower is less than $20,000; Lower-middle $20,000-$49,999; Middle $50,000-$80,000; Upper-middle $80,000-$150,000; Upper $150,000 + . The models are for illustrative purposes and do not assume any causal direction.
These results are likely mirrored for other low-wage occupations, but the CCES does not include a clear occupational category to perform the same analysis.
The Pew survey consisted of 1500 respondents. The General Social Survey sampled 4510 respondents, but the number of cases in the analyses is lower because not all respondents received the full battery of questions.
There is some debate about how to define low-wage. See Fusaro and Shaefer (2016) for a detailed discussion.
Matching the occupations above to a proximate category included in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics wage and occupational data can objectively identify which of the six industries would be considered low-wage (Appelbaum and Schmitt 2009). Figure 4 below depicts this information. The national median wage earnings for a full-time employee in 2014 was $41,236. An occupation where the median worker earns below two-thirds of this amount, or earns below $27,491, would be considered low-wage. An individual working in food preparation earning the median wage for one year of work in 2014 would have been expected to earn $19,139 while as a cashier, they would have been expected to earn $19,074 for a year of full-time work.
The 2006 module is used because the question about working conditions does not appear in later waves.
The Pew survey collected income data on a nine-point scale, while the GSS used a 25-point scale. The income measures used in the analysis are as follows: Lower (less than $20,000), Lower-middle ($20,000 to $40,000), Middle ($40,000 to $75,000), Upper-middle ($75,000 to $150,000), and Upper ($150,000 and above). Alternative coding schemes do not substantively alter the results.
The questions do not ask respondents to identify who was a member of the union.
The results with regard to income for both Pew and GSS are substantively similar in models that exclude respondents from union households entirely.
Analyses on both the Pew and GSS data that exclude partisan leaners yield substantively similar results.
Educational attainment is on a five-point scale according to degree attainment ranging from 0 (less than high school diploma) to 4 (graduate degree). The Pew survey originally collected educational data on an eight-point scale, while the GSS contains the five-point scale. Given this, the Pew data have been rescaled to conform to the scale used by the GSS to maintain consistency across models and estimations.
The Pew data do not include specific wording about the strength of partisanship. Therefore, for those models, the control refers to respondents who initially self-identified with a party. The GSS data include strength of party identification and the binary control refers to those who identified as strong partisans. The Pew collected ideology data on a five-point scale, while the GSS used a seven-point scale. The poles of the ideology scale in the Pew data used the term “very,” while the GSS used “extremely.” The GSS data have been collapsed (combining the middle categories between moderate and extreme) into a five-point scale to mirror the Pew.
Unions have been found to not only represent their members by aggregating and communicating preferences to policymakers, but also distill policy information in ways that clarify the implications of otherwise complex policies (Kim and Margalit 2017). See also Pacewicz (2016) on how the diminished role of unions as community institutions–coupled with paradigmatic shifts toward market-oriented resource allocation–has ruptured economic cleavages that once structured coherent party conflict and political engagement, leaving party labels in the hands of an amalgam of activists.
Along these lines, other work finds labor unions to be a necessary lateral mechanism to ensure regulatory baselines in areas of the labor market where labor law violations are pervasive and alternatives for external recourse are sparse (Fine 2017). Largely consistent with the results of this study, this arrangement stems from an attitudinal affinity, such that lower-income workers hold more favorable attitudes toward worker-driven institutions than toward administrative institutions to address workplace grievances.
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The author is grateful to Janice Fine, Rick Lau, Zayna Lyon, Katie McCabe, Lisa Miller, Will Young, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this work. Replication materials can be found at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ZRUDFC.
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Lyon, G. Intraparty Cleavages and Partisan Attitudes Toward Labor Policy. Polit Behav 42, 385–413 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9500-6
- Public opinion
- Labor policy
- Political attitudes