Democrats Take Power, Unions Lose Members? SMLR-Led Research Finds Surprising Trend in Post-Recession Membership

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (January 31, 2019) – Even in states where pro-union Democrats swept into power, any change in party control at the statehouse generally hurt public sector union membership in the post-recession era, according to a study led by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations postdoctoral associate Todd Vachon and published by the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society.

Working with University of Connecticut sociologist Michael Wallace, Vachon analyzed state-level data to determine how the labor movement fared after the Great Recession and during the rise of the Tea Party movement (2009-2016). The number of public sector union members dropped from approximately 7.6 million to 7.1 million during this time, with an average decline of 2.45 percent across all 50 states. The study finds declines were even greater in states where the balance of power shifted at the statehouse.

Governor’s Office

First, the study finds public sector unions fared better when the same party—Democrats or Republicans—maintained control of the governor’s office from one election to the next. Union membership fell more dramatically whenever the seat flipped, with slightly greater losses after a Democratic victory.

  • Democrat to Republican Flip: The decline in public sector union membership was 1.69 percent greater than in states where the governorship did not change parties.
  • Republican to Democrat Flip: The decline in public sector union membership was 2.10 percent greater than in states where the governorship did not change parties.

“Incoming Republican leaders used the recession to motivate attacks on public sector bargaining rights in union strongholds like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana,” Vachon said. “More union-friendly Democratic leaders did not attack union rights when they took control in states like Connecticut and Minnesota, but they were forced to enact strict austerity measures which in the end also harmed public sector union membership.” 

State Government (Governor’s Office and Legislative Majorities)

Second, the study finds public sector unions lost more members in states where one party won complete control of the executive and legislative branches, suggesting a surprising upshot to gridlock at the state capitol. Once again, losses were slightly greater after Democrats took power.

  • Republicans Win Total Control: The decline in public sector union membership was 0.77 percent greater than in states where government control did not change.
  • Democrats Win Total Control: The decline in public sector union membership was 1.38 percent greater than in states where government control did not change.

“Unions got hammered when one party took total control,” Vachon said. “When the government was divided between both parties, they couldn't agree on anything and unions suffered the least.”

But why were membership losses greater—even if the difference was slight—in states where pro-union Democrats ascended to power? Against the backdrop of recession-induced state budget crises, and an anti-tax, anti-public worker sentiment among some of the electorate, worker perceptions may have played a role.

“When union leaders are siding with Democrats who are pushing austerity measures, workers may feel betrayed and ditch the union,” he said. “When Republicans attack the right to have a union, workers may become galvanized and remain in the union despite cuts. Even non-members may finally come around to join the union as they see it as an organization fighting on their behalf. I guess the irony for Republicans is that the more viciously they attack unions, the more worker solidarity there will be in response.”

In one exception, changes in party control did not significantly affect union membership levels in the South, where unionization is traditionally low. The South is defined here as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Analyzing other variables known to affect the labor movement, Vachon and Wallace find public sector union membership was not affected by economic growth or unemployment in the post-recession era, but did vary based on each state’s demographics and labor laws.

Public Sector Union Membership

Higher in States with…
More women in the labor force
More Hispanics in the labor force
Public sector collective bargaining laws

Lower in States with…
More men in the labor force
More African-Americans in the labor force
“Right-to-work” laws

 

Research Note
All findings are statistically significant.

Press Contact
Steve Flamisch, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations
848.252.9011 (cell), steve.flamisch@smlr.rutgers.edu

About the School
The Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) is the world’s leading source of expertise on managing and representing workers, designing effective organizations, and building strong employment relationships.

Expanded Data
The table below lists the states in which the governor’s office flipped or one party took total complete control of the statehouse between 2009 and 2016. Note that several states shifted back and forth during this time
 

Governor’s Office

Democrat to Republican Flip
18 states

1.69 percent greater decline in 
public sector union membership

Arkansas (2015)
Illinois (2015)
Iowa (2011)
Kansas (2011)
Kentucky (2016)
Maine (2011)
Maryland (2015)
Massachusetts (2015)
Michigan (2011)
New Jersey (2010)
New Mexico (2011)
North Carolina (2013)
Ohio (2011)
Pennsylvania (2011)
Tennessee (2011)
Virginia (2010)
Wisconsin (2011)
Wyoming (2011)

Republican to Democrat Flip
6 states

2.10 percent greater decline in 
public sector union membership

Alaska (2015)
Connecticut (2011)
Hawaii (2011)
Minnesota (2011)
Rhode Island (2011)
Vermont (2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

State Government (Governor’s Office and Legislative Majorities) 

Republicans Win Total Control
29 states

0.77 percent greater decline in 
public sector union membership

Alabama (2011)
Alaska (2013)
Arkansas (2013)
Colorado (2011)
Colorado (2015)
Illinois (2015)
Indiana (2011)
Iowa (2011)
Kansas (2011)
Louisiana (2011)
Maine (2011)
Maryland (2015)
Massachusetts (2015)
Michigan (2011)
Minnesota (2015)
Mississippi (2012)
Nevada (2015)
New Hampshire (2011)
New Jersey (2010)
New Mexico (2011)
North Carolina (2011)
Ohio (2011)
Oregon (2011)
Pennsylvania (2011)
Tennessee (2011)
Washington (2015)
West Virginia (2015)
Wisconsin (2011)
Wyoming (2011)

 

Democrats Win Total Control
12 states

1.38 percent greater decline in 
public sector union membership

Alaska (2015)
California (2011)
Colorado (2013)
Connecticut (2011)
Hawaii (2011)
Maine (2013)
Minnesota (2013)
New York (2013)
Oregon (2013)
Pennsylvania (2015)
Rhode Island (2011)
Vermont (2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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