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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The correlation between state union membership and state RTW (right to work) status in 2012 is − 0.826.
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.
Abrajano, M. (2015). Reexamining the ‘Racial Gap’ in political knowledge. Journal of Politics, 77(1), 44–54.
Achen, C. H., & Bartels, L. M. (2016). Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Acharya, A., Blackwell, M., & Sen, M. (2016). Explaining causal findings without bias: Detecting and assessing direct effects. American Political Science Review, 110(3), 512–529.
Ahlquist, J. S. (2017). Labor unions, political representation, and economic inequality. Annual Review of Political Science, 20, 409–432.
Ahlquist, J. S., Clayton, A. B., & Levi, M. (2014). Provoking preferences: Unionization, trade policy, and the ILWU puzzle. International Organization, 68(1), 33–75.
Ahlquist, J. S., & Margaret, L. (2013). In the interest of others: Organizations and social activism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Althaus, S. (2003). Collective preferences in democratic politics: Opinion surveys and the will of the people. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arceneaux, K. (2006). Do campaigns help voters learn? A cross-national analysis. British Journal of Political Science, 36(1), 159–173.
Asher, H. B., Heberlig, E., Ripley, R., & Snyder, K. (2001). American labor unions in the electoral arena. Baltimore: Rowman and Littlefield.
Barabas, J., & Jerit, Jennifer. (2009). Estimating the causal effects of media coverage on policy-specific knowledge. American Journal of Political Science, 53(1), 73–89.
Barabas, J., Jerit, J., Pollock, W., & Rainey, C. (2014). The question(s) of political knowledge. American Political Science Review, 108(4), 840–855.
Bartels, L. M. (1996). Uniformed votes: Information effects in presidential elections. American Journal of Political Science, 40(1), 194–230.
Bartels, L. M. (2008). Unequal democracy: The political economy of the new gilded age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Becher, M., Stegmueller, D., & Käppner, K. (2018). Local union organization and law making in the US congress. Journal of Politics, 80(2), 539–554.
Berelson, B. R., Lazarsfeld, P. F., & McPhee, W. N. (1954). Voting: A study of opinion formation in a presidential campaign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Brady, D., Baker, R. S., & Finnigan, R. (2013). When unionization disappears: State-level unionization and working poverty in the United States. American Sociological Review, 78(5), 872–896.
Brady, H. E., Verba, S., & Schlozman, K. L. (1995). Beyond SES: A resource model of political participation. American Political Science Review, 89(2), 271–294.
Brewer, P. R. (2003). Values, political knowledge, and public opinion about gay rights: A framing-based account. Public Opinion Quarterly, 67(2), 173–201.
Bucci, L. C. (2018). Organized labor’s check on rising economic inequality in the US states. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 18(2), 148–173.
Campbell, D. E. (2004). Acts of faith: Churches and political engagement. Political Behavior, 26(2), 155–180.
Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Campbell, D. E., & Niemi, R. G. (2016). Testing civics: State-level civic education requirements and political knowledge. American Political Science Review, 110(3), 495–511.
Carpini, D., Michael, X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans know about politics and why it matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Clifford, S., & Jerit, J. (2016). Cheating on political knowledge questions in online surveys: An assessment of the problem and solutions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80(4), 858–887.
Converse, P. E. (1964). The nature of belief systems in mass publics. In D. Apter (Ed.), Ideology and discontent. New York: Free Press.
Dolan, K. (2011). Do women and men know different things? Measuring gender differences in political knowledge. Journal of Politics, 73(1), 97–107.
Dow, J. K. (2009). Gender differences in political knowledge: Distinguishing characteristics-based and returns-based differences. Political Behavior, 31(1), 117–136.
Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper.
Ellis, C. (2013). Social context and economic biases in representation. Journal of Politics, 75(3), 773–786.
Eren, O., & Ozbeklik, S. (2016). What do right-to-work laws do? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 35(1), 173–194.
Flavin, P. (2016). Labor union strength and the equality of political representation. British Journal of Political Science, 48, 1075–1091.
Flavin, P., & Hartney, M. T. (2015). When government subsidizes its own: Collective bargaining laws as agents of political mobilization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(4), 896–911.
Flavin, P., & Radcliff, B. (2011). Labor union membership and voting across nations. Electoral Studies, 30(4), 633–641.
Fowler, A., & Margolis, M. (2014). The political consequences of uninformed voters. Electoral Studies, 34, 100–110.
Fraile, M., & Gomez, R. (2017). Why does Alejandro know more about politics than Catalina? Explaining the Latin American gender gap in political knowledge. British Journal of Political Science, 47(1), 91–112.
Francia, P. L. (2006). The future of organized labor in American politics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Francia, P. L., & Bigelow, N. S. (2010). Polls and elections: What’s the matter with the white working class? The effects of union membership in the 2004 presidential election. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 40(1), 140–158.
Francia, P. L., & Orr, S. (2014). Labor unions and the mobilization of Latino voters: Can the dinosaur awaken the sleeping giant? Political Research Quarterly, 67(4), 943–956.
Galston, W. A. (2001). Political knowledge, political engagement, and civic education. Annual Review of Political Science, 4, 217–234.
Gelman, A., & King, G. (1993). Why are American presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable? British Journal of Political Science, 23(4), 409–451.
Gilens, M. (2001). Political ignorance and collective policy preferences. American Political Science Review, 95(2), 379–396.
Goldfield, M., & Bromsen, A. (2013). The changing landscape of US unions in historical and theoretical perspective. Annual Review of Political Science, 16, 231–257.
Gomez, B. T., & Wilson, J. M. (2001). Political sophistication and economic voting in the American electorate: A theory of heterogeneous attribution. American Journal of Political Science, 45(4), 899–914.
Highton, B. (2009). Revisiting the relationship between educational attainment and political sophistication. Journal of Politics, 71(4), 1564–1576.
Hirsch, B. T., & Macpherson, D. A. (2003). Union membership and coverage database from the current population survey: Note. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 56(2), 349–354.
Holbrook, T. M. (2002). Presidential campaigns and the knowledge gap. Political Communication, 19(4), 437–454.
Holger, R., Shulman, S., & Weiler, S. (2004). Right-to-work legislation, social capital, and variations in state union density. The Review of Regional Studies, 34(1), 95–111.
Huckfeldt, R. (2001). The social communication of political expertise. American Journal of Political Science, 45(2), 425–438.
Iversen, T., & Soskice, D. (2015). Information, inequality, and mass polarization: Ideology in advanced democracies. Comparative Political Studies, 48(13), 1781–1813.
Jacobson, G. C. (1999). The effect of the AFL-CIO’s ‘Voter Education’ campaigns on the 1996 house elections. Journal of Politics, 61(1), 185–194.
Jerit, J. (2009). Understanding the knowledge gap: The role of experts and journalists. Journal of Politics, 71(2), 442–456.
Jerit, J., & Barabas, J. (2016). Revisiting the gender gap in political knowledge. Political Behavior, 39(4), 817–838.
Jerit, J., Barabas, J., & Bolsen, T. (2006). Citizens, knowledge, and the information environment. American Journal of Political Science, 50(2), 266–282.
Jr, E., William, P., Hayes, A., Shah, D. V., & Kwak, Nojin. (2005). Understanding the relationship between communication and political knowledge: A model comparison approach using panel data. Political Communication, 22, 423–446.
Jr, E., William, P., & Scheufele, D. A. (2000). Connecting news media use with gaps in knowledge and participation. Political Communication, 17(3), 215–237.
Jr, E., William, P., & Thomson, T. (2006). Is it talking, Thinking, or both? A lagged dependent variable of political discussion effects on political knowledge? Journal of Communication, 56(3), 523–542.
Kerrissey, J., & Schofer, E. (2013). Union membership and political participation in the United States. Social Forces, 91(3), 895–928.
Kim, S. E., & Margalit, Y. (2017). Informed preferences? The impact of unions on workers’ policy views. American Journal of Political Science, 61(3), 728–743.
Kuklinski, J. H., Quirk, P. J., Jerit, J., Schwieder, D., & Rich, Robert F. (2000). Misinformation and the currency of democratic citizenship. Journal of Politics, 62(3), 790–816.
Lamare, J. R. (2016). Union experience and worker policy: Legislative behavior in California, 1999–2012. ILR Review, 69(1), 113–141.
Lau, R. R., Andersen, D. J., & Redlawsk, D. P. (2008). An exploration of correct voting in recent U.S. presidential elections. American Journal of Political Science, 52(2), 395–411.
Lau, R. R., Patel, P., Fahmy, D. F., & Kaufman, R. R. (2014). Correct voting across thirty-three democracies: A preliminary analysis. British Journal of Political Science, 44(2), 239–259.
Lau, R. R., & Redlawsk, D. P. (2001). Advantages and disadvantages of cognitive heuristics in political decision making. American Journal of Political Science, 45(4), 951–971.
Lau, R. R., & Redlawsk, D. P. (2006). How voters decide: Information processing in election campaigns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Leighley, J. E., & Nagler, J. (2007). Unions, voter turnout, and class bias in the US electorate, 1964–2004. Journal of Politics, 69(2), 430–441.
Lupia, A. D. (1994). Shortcuts versus encyclopedias: Information and voting behavior in California insurance reforms. American Political Science Review, 88(1), 63–76.
Lupia, A. D. (2016). Uninformed: Why people seem to know so little about politics and what we can do about it. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lupton, R. N., Myers, W. M., & Thornton, J. R. (2015). Political sophistication and the dimensionality of elite and mass attitudes. Journal of Politics, 77(2), 368–380.
Luskin, R. C. (1990). Explaining political sophistication. Political Behavior, 12(4), 331–361.
McClurg, S. D. (2006). The electoral relevance of political talk: Examining disagreement and expertise effects in social networks on political participation. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 737–754.
Minchin, T. J. (2013). Labor is Back?: The AFL-CIO during the Presidency of John J. Sweeney, 1995–2009. Labor History, 54(4), 393–420.
Mondak, J. J. (1995). Newspapers and political awareness. American Journal of Political Science, 39(2), 513–517.
Mondak, J. J., & Anderson, M. R. (2004). The knowledge gap: A reexamination of gender-based differences in political knowledge. Journal of Politics, 66(2), 492–512.
Moore, W. J. (1998). The determinants and effects of right-to-work laws: A review of the recent literature. Journal of Labor Research, 19(3), 445–469.
Mosimann, N., & Pontusson, J. (2017). Solidaristic unionism and support for redistribution in contemporary Europe. World Politics, 69(3), 448–492.
Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The workplace as a context for cross-cutting political discourse. Journal of Politics, 68(1), 140–155.
Peffley, M., Knigge, P., & Hurwitz, J. (2001). A multiple values model of political tolerance. Political Research Quarterly, 54(2), 379–406.
Peterson, D. A. M. (2009). Campaign learning and vote determinants. American Journal of Political Science, 53(2), 445–460.
Popkin, S. L. (1991). The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Prior, M. (2005). News vs. entertainment: How increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge and turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 577–592.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Pérez, E. O. (2015). Mind the Gap: Why large group deficits in political knowledge emerge-and what to do about them. Political Behavior, 37(4), 933–954.
Radcliff, B., & Davis, P. (2000). Labor organization and electoral participation in industrial democracies. American Journal of Political Science, 44(1), 132–141.
Radcliff, B., & Saiz, M. (1998). Labor organization and public policy in the American states. Journal of Politics, 60(1), 113–125.
Rainey, C. (2014). Arguing for a negligible effect. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), 1083–1091.
Ronald, L. D. L., & Huckfeldt, R. (1998). Social capital, social networks, and political participation. Political Psychology, 19(3), 567–584.
Rosenfeld, J. (2014). What unions no longer do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rosenstone, S. J., & Hansen, J. M. (1993). Mobilization, participation, and American democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schlozman, K. L., Verba, S., & Brady, H. E. (2012). The unheavenly chorus: Unequal political voice and the broken promise of American democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Smith, A. E. (2016). Talking it out: Political conversation and knowledge gaps in unequal urban contexts. British Journal of Political Science, 48, 407–425.
Sniderman, P. M., Brody, R., & Tetlock, P. E. (1991). Reasoning about politics: Explorations in political psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Straits, B. C. (1991). Bringing strong ties back in interpersonal gateways to political information and influence. Public Opinion Quarterly, 55(3), 432–448.
Western, B., & Rosenfeld, J. (2011). Unions, norms, and the rise in US wage inequality. American Sociological Review, 76(4), 513–537.
Zaller, J. R. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zullo, R. (2004). Labor council outreach and union member voter turnout: A microanalysis from the 2000 election. Industrial relations: A journal of economy and society, 43(2), 324–338.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Labor unions
- Political knowledge
- Knowledge gaps