Politically, Unions Are Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Kathleen Geier points out that, as usual, labor played a big role in Tuesday’s Democratic victory:

Labor’s political power extends far beyond the 12% of American workers who are members of labor unions. Unions provide the ground troops that are essential for get-out-the-vote campaigns; this election cycle, they were particularly crucial in battleground states like Wisconsin and Ohio, which are union states. In particular, this year, unions played an even more active role in GOTV efforts than in the past, because as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, for the first time, unions were able to call and canvass not just union households, but nonunion homes as well.

The big question is, in return for all that massive support, what can labor expect the Democrats to deliver?

The answer is: not an awful lot, really. So why do unions continue to pour so much effort into Democratic campaigns?

Prospect theory gives us the same answer as common sense: for most people, fear of loss is a more powerful motivation than anticipation of gain. And that’s obviously what keeps unions working for Dems: they might not get very much out of it, but they know that they’ll lose a helluva lot under Republicans.

This is a lousy deal for unions. Every election they put a ton of work in, knowing that they won’t really get much more than dribs and drabs if Democrats win. But they’re rightfully scared to death of what Republicans will do to them if they get into office. Democrats are well aware of this, which means they know they don’t need to offer anything more than dribs and drabs. So they don’t.

I keep thinking there ought to be a way for Republicans to leverage this. I’m not sure what it is, but even if they did nothing more than declare a truce of sorts, fear of loss might disappear as a motivating factor for unions. And with that, Democrats might lose a big chunk of support. But I suppose it’ll never happen. Hatred of labor is just bred too deeply into their DNA.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend