In the United States, union membership has set a national standard – a north star – for employee protections, labor rights, and political organization in the workplace. However, since the 1980’s, union membership and mobilization power has consistently diminished and now only constitutes about 11% of the national workforce.
Not only are state governors leveraging political and legal processes to disenfranchise unionized workers and their access to collective bargaining initiatives, but the National Relations Board has subtly weakened the enforcement of federal protections statutes by siding with employers over employees in several cases in recent years. In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a 2011 billinto law which curtailed the ability of most public employees to participate in collective bargaining, while recent laws in Michigan and Indianato undercut unions have led to dramatic decreases in union membership.
These trends are very concerning for lower-income, middle-income, and government employees who have previously relied on union membership to communicate their frustration with management and ensure competitive wages, as well as an equal political voice. Moreover, this disenfranchisement of millions of previously unionized workers represents a grave threat to democracy by excluding groups of people from the democratic process, perpetuating economic and social inequality, and fostering hyperpolarization among political parties and the electorate.
Notably, despite previously being a Democratic Party powerhouse and electoral base, in the 2016 president election, Secretary Clinton obtained a mere 8 percent more of the union vote than President Trump. This blog analyzes the larger structural economic and cultural reasons that account for these significant shifts in union vote during the 2016 general election, as well as the dire consequences these decreases in union power have on the American democratic process.
In 2016, President Trump tapped into extreme national sentiments of resentment and distrust of economic globalization that made many Americans union members vote for him. In fact, opposed to the 2008 and 2012 general elections, Republicans saw about a 5 percentincrease in union vote in 2016. Primary literature suggests that this phenomenon occurred because President Trump used rhetoric on trade and keeping jobs in America. Similarly, the AFL-CIO arguedthat “he forged a personal connection with working people by acknowledging their resentment about the rules being written to marginalize them.” These trends are relevant because they suggest that, although America has witnessed greater economic prosperity and job growth than in past presidencies, President Trump was still able to capture a sizable portion of the union electorate.
Furthermore, these trends negate several scholars who argue that the middle class and union associations serve to protect democracy by voting for consensus candidates and by acting as a type of gate keeper. More specifically, Levitsky argues that the middle class is supposed to protect democracy instead of succumbing to the most extreme aspects of a party or ideology.  As an ostensibly moderate and well informed demographic, the middle class and union demographic should be able to distinguish between a danger and supporter of democracy. By electing an extreme partisan in 2016, the middle classes or union associations roles as a defender and protector of democracy diminished. Similarly, Lipset argues that the more well-to-do a nation is, the more likely that nation is to sustain democracy.  The results of the 2016 general election demonstrate that this is not always the case and if you are able to tap into the passions and tribalism of a sizable electorate in the population, you can come out the winner of an election.
Unless trends dramatically shift and unions increase their organizing and political participation power, characteristics associated with democratic erosion may continue fester inside the United States. It is extremely important that elected officials, advocates, and everyday citizens take actionable steps to increase the political power of unions and ensure that no one is excluded from the democratic process. As Levitsky suggests, if the Republic leadership had taken decisive action and condemned President Trump for being a danger to democratic norms and democracy as a whole, this election would have turned out very different. At the same time, it is important that citizens keep themselves informed and vote based off of the policy and data rather than emotion and zeal – only then can democracy be truly saved.
 Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 2018,
 Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requirements of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review, 1959