How Labor Unions Increase Political Knowledge: Evidence from the United States

Abstract

Labor unions have long been important political actors, mobilizing voters, shaping their members’ attitudes, and influencing representation and economic inequality. However, little is known regarding unions’ influence on political knowledge. In this paper, I argue that unions increase their members’ political knowledge through two mechanisms: direct information provision and workplace discussion of politics. I use data from recent national election surveys and a matching technique, showing that union members, particularly those with less formal education, who face higher costs in seeking out political information, are significantly more politically knowledgeable than their non-union counterparts and better informed about where political parties and candidates stand on the issues. I conclude by discussing unions’ capacity to reduce knowledge gaps and foster a more politically informed electorate.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Source is the 2012 ANES

Fig. 3

Source is the 2004 NAES

Notes

  1. 1.

    Replication data, code to reproduce tables/figures for this paper, as well as the online supplemental appendix can be found at the Political Behavior Dataverse (https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/polbehavior).

  2. 2.

    https://web.archive.org/web/20081106051952/http://blog.aflcio.org/2008/11/05/union-voters-helped-propel-obama-working-family-candidates-to-victory.

  3. 3.

    https://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/07/labor-unions-claim-credit-for-obamas-victory/.

  4. 4.

    https://aflcio.org/press/releases/afl-cio-plans-final-ground-game-labor-2016-campaign.

  5. 5.

    https://aflcio.org/press/releases/afl-cio-analysis-president-donald-trumps-fy-2018-budget.

  6. 6.

    https://aflcio.org/2017/11/16/house-republicans-throw-trillions-dollars-millionaires-and-corporations-hope-nobody-will.

  7. 7.

    https://aflcio.org/what-unions-do/social-economic-justice/advocacy/legislative-alerts.

  8. 8.

    The AFL-CIO is an umbrella organization consisting of 56 labor unions, ranging from letter carriers, to metal workers, to carpenters, to teachers. This includes a large majority of the union members in the United States https://www.infoplease.com/business-finance/labor-unions/national-labor-organizations-membership-over-100000. A smaller umbrella organization is called Change to Win, which has over 5 million members and consists of: the United Farm Workers, SEIU, and the Teamsters https://www.influencewatch.org/labor-union/change-to-win/. Though smaller than the AFL-CIO, this organization is similarly politically active. In short, most union members belong to a larger organization that is well-funded and politically active, and thus has the ability to easily provide political information to members, particularly in the era of modern electronic communication.

  9. 9.

    https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus.pdf.

  10. 10.

    In the Supplemental Appendix, I use data from the pre and post election components of the 2012 ANES (serving here as a panel), regressing post-election political knowledge on workplace discussion of politics, controlling for pre-election political knowledge, demographics, and interest in politics. The results from this regression show that more frequent workplace discussion of politics is positively and significantly associated with higher levels of political knowledge. I view this analysis as further evidence (and arguably stronger evidence than a cross-sectional analysis) in support of a proposed mechanism by which union membership influences political knowledge, via workplace discussion of politics.

  11. 11.

    I used the “MatchIt” package in R. For the 2012 ANES, 68 observations did not have an exact match, and were dropped. For the 2004 NAES, all observations had an exact match.

  12. 12.

    The 2012 ANES was conducted both online and in-person. Online survey takers tend to exhibit higher knowledge scores, potentially a result of looking up answers (e.g., Clifford and Jerit 2016). The 2004 Annenberg study was conducted entirely over the phone. In 2004, swing states were: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In 2012, swing states were: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

  13. 13.

    Matching is certainly not a panacea, and the inability to randomly assign union membership is a potential issue. I also run a model using non-matched 2012 ANES data (including the matching covariates as controls, rather than first matching and then including them as controls). The results are virtually the same. Nevertheless, I opt to use the matching technique as it does help to ensure balance on several important correlates of political knowledge, and can help to bolster confidence in the validity of the results.

  14. 14.

    People who live in a union household, but are not union members themselves are coded as non-union members. Although unions may target households, not just its members, during an election, household members i.e. a spouse, child, or sibling, who is not a member of the union him/herself are unlikely to be exposed to the full cadre of union information flows, activities that result from actually being in the union; i.e., discussion of politics. Furthermore, I lack sufficient observations (only 234 individuals in the 2012 ANES are in a union household, but not members themselves) to separately examine union household members. By doing this, and including several “treated” (union) observations in the “control” (non-union) group, I am likely biasing the union “effect” downward, i.e., resulting in a more conservative estimate. Examining the influence of union membership on people in union households, but not in union members themselves, i.e., assessing whether there is a “contagion effect” from living in a union household, but not belonging to the union, is interesting to examine, but is beyond the scope of this paper.

  15. 15.

    I do not include frequency of workplace discussion of politics as a control variable here, because this question was only asked to online respondents in the 2012 ANES, and thus including it would drastically reduce the sample size. I do, however, run models that include this as a control using data from the 2004 NAES. The results from this model, displayed in the supplemental appendix, show that union membership is associated with higher levels of political knowledge even when this control is included.

  16. 16.

    See the supplemental appendix for a full listing of all knowledge questions. For the office currently held by John Roberts, the ANES coding scheme is (0, 0.5, or 1), reflecting incorrect, partially correct, or correct answers. I keep with the ANES coding and use the 0.5 designation for this question. All other knowledge questions (for both the 2012 ANES and 2004 NAES) are coded: correct = 1, incorrect = 0.

  17. 17.

    These are seven-point scales, asking respondents to place candidates and/or parties. If people placed the candidate/party on the right side of the scale then they are coded as being correct. For example, the services and spending scale is coded so that 1 = the lowest level of spending spending and services, 4 = a midpoint, and 7 = the highest level of spending and services. If a respondent placed the Democratic Party at either 5, 6, or 7, then they would be correct. Had they placed the Democratic Party at 1, 2, 3, or 4, indicating that it takes a conservative or moderate position on this issue, then they would be coded as incorrect.

  18. 18.

    The questions asking about Obama and Romney’s positions on government spending scales, for example, are repeated across ANES surveys, and most previous nominees would be placed similarly (to the left or right of the midpoint) as Obama and Romney were.

  19. 19.

    OLS coefficients are displayed here for greater ease of interpretability and because of the large number of knowledge questions. I also run Poisson models, for both the 2012 ANES and 2004 NAES, displaying results in the supplemental appendix. Results are similar to the OLS specification. See the supplemental appendix for all regression models associated with the figures and tables displayed here.

  20. 20.

    Several of the independent variables included here could potentially be post-treatment, i.e. influenced by union membership. This could bias estimates (e.g., Acharya et al. 2016). To address concerns, I run additional models that drop the following variables that could plausibly be viewed as post treatment: income, church attendance, unemployment, marital status, and interest in politics. I also run a simple baseline model that only includes the union × education interaction. Some models show that union membership is associated with higher political knowledge for people with some college education, but no degree. Regardless of the specification, however, results are non-significant for people with a college degree. See the Supplemental Appendix for the results of these regression models.

  21. 21.

    States are coded as right to work if they have implemented legislation prior to 2012. http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/right-to-work-laws-and-bills.aspx.

  22. 22.

    http://www.unionstats.com/.

  23. 23.

    It is also possible that results differ by industry, but it is likely that these differences would emerge for specific issues rather than for general political knowledge. For example, people who belong to a steelworkers union in the private sector would likely be well-informed about issues of free-trade, while people who belong to a teacher’s union in the public sector would be informed about education-related issues. In terms of more general political knowledge, I have no theoretical reason to expect that the intensity of union communications or frequency of workplace discussion would be any higher in a steelworkers union, as opposed to a union in food service. Furthermore, I do not have sufficient observations to split the data up by industry.

  24. 24.

    The correlation between state union membership and state RTW (right to work) status in 2012 is − 0.826.

  25. 25.

    At the time of this writing, Missouri voters had replealed their state’s right to work legislation. Nevertheless, many state Republican governments have recently focused their efforts on enacting right to work legislation. https://www.npr.org/2018/08/08/636568530/missouri-blocks-right-to-work-law.

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Macdonald, D. How Labor Unions Increase Political Knowledge: Evidence from the United States. Polit Behav (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09548-7

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Keywords

  • Labor unions
  • Political knowledge
  • Information
  • Knowledge gaps