Union Membership Boosts Political Knowledge

For less-educated Americans, belonging to a labor union is a good way of increasing one's understanding of the world of politics.
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United Food and Commercial Workers President Marc Perrone addresses a rally in Dorchester, Massachusetts, organized by union members and attended by former Vice President Joe Biden, to support Stop and Shop employees striking throughout the region on April 18th, 2019.

United Food and Commercial Workers President Marc Perrone addresses a rally in Dorchester, Massachusetts, organized by union members and attended by former Vice President Joe Biden, to support Stop and Shop employees striking throughout the region on April 18th, 2019.

By this point, we're all aware of how quickly and easily political misinformation can spread. Whether it comes from a concerned friend or a Russian bot, fake news can easily infest your social media feeds, and perhaps influence your vote.

The only way for a population to survive this plague is to be better informed. New research identifies one way to accomplish that goal: increasing union membership.

"Union members, particularly those with less formal education ... are significantly more politically knowledgable than their non-union counterparts," writes political scientist David Macdonald of Florida State University.

Specifically, he reports in the journal Political Behavior, they tend to be "better informed about where political parties and candidates stand on the issues."

Using survey data from the 2012 American National Election Study, and the 2004 National Annenberg Election Study, Macdonald created a set of about 4,800 people who were matched for a variety of factors that could influence political knowledge, including race, gender, education, and whether they lived in a swing state. Half of them belonged to a labor union, while the others did not.

Macdonald analyzed their answers to a large set of questions posed as part of the 2012 study. These included questions about basic political facts ("How long is a U.S. Senate term?"), and about the differences between the two major parties' ideological bents (such as which party was more likely to support government-run health insurance).

Not surprisingly, Macdonald found that people whose education did not extend beyond high school were 19 percent less politically knowledgeable than college graduates. Crucially, though, "labor unions help to reduce these knowledge disparities," he reports.

"The knowledge gap between non-union members with a high school diploma or less and college graduates is 4.7 questions" out of 41 in total, he writes. That gap drops to 3.1 questions for union members.

In other words, "for people with a high school diploma or less, union membership reduces the knowledge gap with college graduates by 34 percent."

Macdonald argues that this increased knowledge among union members reflects two separate factors. First, "Unions provide their members with a variety of direct information sources, via emails, newsletters, and campaign mobilization," he writes. "That helps people to learn about the parties and candidates."

In addition, "Union members engage in more frequent workplace discussion of politics" than non-members, according to data from the National Annenberg Election Study. Regular union meetings give members "more opportunities in which to discuss politics," transforming the workplace into "an environment where political discussion is more commonplace."

In this way, Macdonald writes, spending time at work becomes "a means of acquiring information about politics."

As Macdonald notes, there are many reasons why greater political knowledge among citizens is good for society as a whole. More informed people are more likely to vote, and research suggests they tend to be more tolerant of opposing positions.

But of all the factors that contribute to better-informed citizens, "union membership is the only one that can be influenced by policymakers, via legislation that empowers or weakens organized labor," he writes. From the early 1950s to 2016, union membership declined from 35 percent of American workers to less than 11 percent, in part thanks to right-to-work legislation in a number of states.

"Political knowledge is not solely influenced by factors such as education, gender, race, and media consumption," Macdonald concludes. "Labor unions can play an important role as well. Declining union membership can thus deprive people—particularly the less-educated—of a vital source of political information."

That's another reason to bemoan the shrinkage of the unionized work force—and to work toward turning that trend around.

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