Mitchell’s Musings 11-7-16: Disunion

04 Nov 2016 10:32 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 11-7-16: Disunion

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Much has been said about the base of support for the Trump candidacy, usually depicted as disaffected white males with less than a college degree. We have noted in past musings that there are plenty of Trump supporters who don’t fit the stereotype. The latest Field Poll data for California – a decidedly “blue” state – show among “likely voters” that 28% of those with a college degree are Trump supporters as are 22% among those with postgraduate work (more than a college degree). Twenty-four percent of Latinos are supporting Trump, despite the notion that he alienated that group with anti-immigrant rhetoric. Among those 18-39 years old, he has 17% support, despite the idea that the young are inherently liberal. So the Trump story is not exclusively one of support among the stereotyped base by any means.[1] The base alone would not produce the kind of polling numbers Trump has been receiving.

Nonetheless, it is worth looking at the stereotyped group. And particularly for LERA readers, it is worth asking whether the decline in unionization has something to do with the fact that this group is looking for someone to give it political representation. In a sense, you can view the declining-union idea as a “bowling alone” story.[2] Unions once served the group as a form of representation – not only at the workplace, but more generally in the American polity. Now, after a long period of union decline within the group’s primary employment sectors, unions represent only a small fraction of the group.

Neither political party, it can be argued, has been energetic in finding actual economic remedies for the group. But Democrats have largely continued to do so indirectly via their historical connection to unions, unions that have less and less contact within the group. Republicans have made direct appeals – not with economic remedies, but with “social” issues. So what has occurred is the Obama “guns and God” story combined with bowling alone.[3] It’s true that in the contemporary era, folks can represent themselves and interact via internet social networks. But individual self-expression is not effective group representation.

Unions never represented a majority of the U.S. workforce or even close to it. But in, say, the 1950s, something like a third of nonfarm workers were union members.[4] The representation rate was uneven, more in some regions and industries than others. But if you were a blue collar, white male, there was a good chance you were a union member.

We don’t have detailed demographics from the 1950s “golden age” of unionization. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) did do a study, based on Current Population survey data, for 1970 (so a decade or more into the decline).[5] Nowadays, the stereotypical union worker is in the public sector, even though there are still more private than public union members.[6] (In 2015, there were 7.2 million public sector union members vs. 7.6 million private members.)

In 1970, 1.1 million union members were in “public administration” out of a total of 17.2 million members in total.[7] (Note that the absolute number of union members was larger in 1970 than today despite substantial growth since 1970 in the workforce.) Moreover, in 1970 (with private unionization rates already in decline but public rates increasing), the average union membership rate in each of the two sectors was about the same. Nowadays, the overall unionization membership rate in the public sector is 35.2% versus a mere 6.7% in the private sector.

Male Union Members as Percent of Male Wage and Salary Workers: 1970

                  Total            White         “Negro & Other”


All               27.8%            27.6%              29.0%

Agriculture        2.7              2.9                2.2

Mining            38.9             38.7                  *

Construction      41.3             42.2               33.7

Manufacturing     38.4             37.8               43.7


 & Public

 Utilities        49.4             50.1               43.6

Wholesale &

 Retail           12.9             12.8               13.9

Services &

 Finance          11.7             11.2               15.6


 Administration   27.8             27.0               33.4


White Collar      12.5             12.0               20.7

Blue Collar       42.1             42.8               36.7

Service           20.1             20.2               19.9


*Base too small for an estimate.

The table above summarizes the BLS estimates of unionization membership rates for males in 1970. To anyone familiar with contemporary data on unionization, the figures on the table are jarringly different from what prevails today. We can debate the long-term causes of union decline. And you don’t have to be a romantic about the role of unions in society and the economy, as some in academia are. But the simple fact is that over time, a sizable group in the U.S. population that was once represented in society has lost a major channel of voice, both in the workplace and in the broader sphere of economic policy. A vacuum was created and politics abhors a vacuum. So someone moved to fill the void and now there are consequences.



[2] “Bowling alone” refers to the Robert Putnam idea that social and community institutions (including unions) have been in decline.


[4] Gerald Mayer, “Union Membership Trends in the United States,” Congressional Research Service, 2004. Available at

[5] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Selected Earnings and Demographic Characteristics of Union Members, 1970,” U.S. GPO, 1972.


[7] Public administration does not cover the entire public sector. Some government-run employment sources (transit enterprises, etc.) are lumped in with other private workers. 

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