Local Unions in Polarized Politics

Kevin Reuning

Miami University of Ohio

November 10, 2023

Research Question

What leads union locals to be politically involved?

Looking For Help On

  • What to makes of some of the contradictory/unexpected results.
  • Ideas of non-survey ways to test the proposed theory.
  • The usefulness of attempting to do multi-state survey.


  • Background on how labor has been involved in politics, and why that might be changing.
  • Why study local unions as opposed to national unions or labor union members?
  • Applying social movement theories of resources and professionalization to why a union local would be politically involved
  • Survey results
  • What does any of this mean?

Labor’s Role in Politics

Whither Organized Labor?

  • For the last 70 years organized labor has been a critical partner within the Democratic Party coalition
  • But this alliance has always been contentious and the environment has changed.

Union Membership Rates Continue to Decline

Union Leaders Have Disagreed over Political Engagement

  • The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was dominated early-on by an ideology of voluntarism that kept them less engaged in politics.
  • In the 1930s the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) splits from the AFL.
  • The CIO campaigns for FDR and in 1943 creates the first ever political action committee.
  • Merger of AFL and CIO in 1955 didn’t fully mend this disagreement.

Republicans Have Courted (Some) Unions

Union Members Increasingly Identify as Republican

Union Locals

What is a ‘Union’?

  • The AFL-CIO is not a union; it is a federation of unions.
  • Unions are federated organizations with a lot of complexity.
  • The smallest building block is (usually) the local.

Example: IBEW Local 292 in Minneapolis

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    local_292["`IBEW, Local 292 
    4,079 members`"]
    local_160["`IBEW, Local 160 
    3,418 members`"]
    local_110["`IBEW, Local 110 
    2,197 members`"]
    local_949["`IBEW, Local 949 
    1,998 members`"]
    MN["`Minnesota State Council 
    14,891 members`"]
    D6["`IBEW District 6`"]
    WI["`Wisconsin State Conference 
    15,863 members`"]
    IL["`Illinois State Conference 
    46,153 members`"]
    IBEW["`International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers`"]
    D( )
    E( )
    local_292 --- D
    local_160 --- D
    local_110 --- D
    local_949 --- D
    D --> MN
    MN --- E
    WI --- E
    IL --- E
    E --> D6
    D6 --> IBEW
    IBEW --> AFL
    style local_292 fill:#008b45;
    style D width:0;
    style E width:0;
    classDef default stroke-width:4px;

Organization Role of Local Unions

Local unions usually:

  • Elect leadership and organize stewards.
  • Hold regular meetings and communicate with members.
  • Participate in contract negotiations and are first contacts for disputes.

Political Role of Local Unions

Local unions can participate actively (or not) in politics:

  • Organize their own political action committee.
  • Endorse or vet candidates.
  • Run get out the vote or voter registration drives.
  • Pass on endorsements from state or national bodies.

Theory of Local Union Engagement

Why Engage in Politics?

Two broad reasons:

  1. To win or protect explicit labor friendly policies.
  2. To win or protect policies that their members (or leaders) broadly support.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/progressohio/5448667051/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Professionalization and Political Engagement

Professionalization Hypothesis

  • More professionalized/resourced union will be more likely to engage in politics

The Risks of Political Engagement

Conflict Over the Civil Rights Movement

  • During the Civil Rights Movement national and state level labor leaders supported civil rights organizations.
  • In the south some locals and/or their members actively opposed these efforts.

Conflict Over the Civil Rights Movement

The response to a statement in support of complying with Brown v. Board of Education led one local union federation to walk it back:

Because of the highly controversial nature of the issues raised by the Supreme Court’s decision on segregation in the public schools, issues which cut across our ranks, tending to divide us, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Chattanooga Central Labor Union henceforth to refrain from involving itself in either side of the issue1

Is All Political Action Risky?


Professionalization Hypothesis

  • More professionalized/resourced union will be more likely to engage in politics.


Professionalization Hypothesis

  • More professionalized/resourced union will be more likely to engage in politics.

Diversity Hypothesis

  • As the members of a local become more diverse the union will become less likely to engage in politics.


Professionalization Hypothesis

  • More professionalized/resourced union will be more likely to engage in politics.

Diversity Hypothesis

  • As the members of a local become more diverse the union will become less likely to engage in politics.

Interactive Hypothesis

  • As the members of a local become more diverse the effect of professionalization will decrease or even become negative.

Survey of Ohio Union Locals

Survey Universe

I combined two sets of data to create a universe of all locals in Ohio:

  • Unions with any members in the private sector have to submit yearly reports to the Department of Labor (OLMS reports).
  • In Ohio public sector unions are supposed to provide updated addresses to the State Employee Relations Board.

Deduplicating and Creating Sample

  • The Initial lists had 1,194 private unions and 2,205 public unions. After removing non-locals and deduplicated across lists this became 900 private, 1,981 public, and 76 on both.
  • I stratified a sample by unit or membership size (20.3% had fewer than 25 members/workers.)
Public Private
Unit Size w/ Address Unit Size w/ Address
1 - 49 197 1 - 49 275
50 - 74 205 50 - 249 275
75-149 200 250+ 275
150+ 238

Survey Invitation and Response Rate

  • Mailed a letter and postcard to all units inviting them to complete the survey online.
  • Union leadership is very concerned with conservative efforts to decertify units.
  • Overall response rate was only 7.63% or 127 locals

Dependent Variable: Political Engagement

I developed two measures of political engagement

  • Number of offices that a local made endorsements for in the 2022 election.
  • Number of GOTV efforts local made in the 2022 election

Measure of Political Engagement

Independent Variables

  • A measure of how professionalized a union local is.
  • A measure of how diverse a union is.

Measure of Professionalization

How professionalized they are is measured by a count of the number of tools the local uses to communicate with their members.

Measure of Demographic Diversity

Union leaders were asked to estimate the percentage of their members that were white, and the percentage that were male.

\[ \text{Diversity} =0.5 - \frac{\lvert0.5 - \text{Prop Male} \rvert + \lvert 0.5 - \text{Prop White} \rvert }{2} \]

Highest value if members are 50% male and 50% white.

Modeling Details, Controls, and Expectations

  • I estimate two separate Poisson regressions
  • Controls
    • Size of the local (1-10, 11-50,51-100, 101-250, 251-1,000, 1,001-5,000, 5,000+ ) as an interval variable.
    • Whether all their members are private employees, public employees, or a mixture of each.
  • Expectations:
    • Professionalization increases activity.
    • Diversity decreased activity.
    • As diversity increases, effect of professionalization will reverse.

Effects of Professionalization with Diversity at Mean

Effects of Diversity with Professionalization at Mean

Effect Professionalization Across Demographic Diversity


What did I find?

  • There is a lot of variation in how politically engaged local unions are in politics.
  • More professionalized locals are much more involved in politics.
  • The effects of diversity are not as expected, and if anything more demographically diverse unions are more politically involved.

What does this mean?

  • Union locals can still be an important source of political mobilization.
  • Decreasing unionization rates is has important ramifications for local politics as well.
  • Maybe there is enough socialization within a union to overcome issues of polarization

Where to go from here?

  • Looking at explanations for why a union did not endorse anyone.
  • Find funding for a multi-state survey or interviews with union leaders?
  • Do local union endorsements matter more than national or state level?

Thank You


Cress, Daniel M, and David A Snow. 1996. “Mobilization at the Margins: Resources, Benefactors, and the Viability of Homeless Social Movement Organizations.” American Sociological Review, 1089–109.
Draper, Alan. 1983. “AA Rope of Sand: The AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education, 1955-1967.”
Finkel, Eli J, Christopher A Bail, Mina Cikara, Peter H Ditto, Shanto Iyengar, Samara Klar, Lilliana Mason, et al. 2020. “Political Sectarianism in America.” Science 370 (6516): 533–36.
Kalmoe, Nathan P, and Lilliana Mason. 2022. Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy. University of Chicago Press.
McCarthy, John D, and Mayer N Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 82 (6): 1212–41.
Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard Cloward. 1978. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. Vintage.
Staggenborg, Suzanne. 1988. “The Consequences of Professionalization and Formalization in the Pro-Choice Movement.” American Sociological Review, 585–605.
Westwood, Sean J, Justin Grimmer, Matthew Tyler, and Clayton Nall. 2022. “Current Research Overstates American Support for Political Violence.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119 (12): e2116870119.


Union Members Ideology

Communication Tools

Which of the following tools does the leadership of the union local use to communicate with members?

  • Email newsletter
  • Physical newsletter or magazine
  • Public social media account (a Facebook page anyone can like/follow for example)
  • Private social media account (a Facebook group where only members can join for example)
  • In-person meetings
  • Virtual meetings
  • Personal phone calls or home visits
  • Informal conversations at the worksite
  • Informal conversations outside of work
  • Other

Local GOTV Efforts

Which of the following actions did your local take to turn people out to vote in the 2022 election?

  • Phone or text banks
  • Door-to-door canvassing
  • Announcements at meetings
  • Posting on social media
  • Offered to drive people to go vote

Local Endorsements

In elections some local unions endorse candidates for office, while others choose not to or cannot because of union rules on how endorsements are made. In the 2022 election did your local or associated PAC endorse candidates in any of the following positions?

  • US Senate
  • US House of Representatives
  • Governor
  • State Senate
  • State House of Representatives
  • Candidates for County Office
  • Candidates for Municipal Office
  • Candidates for School Board


Endorsements GOTV
Communications 0.18 *** 0.29 ***
(0.05)    (0.06)   
Demographic Diversity 0.10     1.51    
(0.75)    (1.11)   
Demo Div x Communications 0.92 *   0.51    
(0.43)    (0.60)   
Size 0.17 *   0.34 ***
(0.07)    (0.10)   
Private Only -0.31     -0.13    
(0.19)    (0.26)   
Public Only -0.73 *** -0.25    
(0.18)    (0.24)   
Intercept 0.31     -1.30 *  
(0.38)    (0.55)   
N. obs. 110        110       
*** p < 0.001; ** p < 0.01; * p < 0.05.

Diversity vs Professionalization