What Does the Emerging Democratic Coalition Mean for Labor?

by Zach Cunningham

Zach Cunningham

Zach Cunningham

Much of the analysis surrounding the 2012 presidential election has focused on the Democratic Party’s new electoral coalition.  The party, many commentators say, has jettisoned its traditional base of white, blue-collar workers in favor of a patchwork of young, college educated whites, women, and racial minorities.  The Democratic share of the white vote has been somewhat steady for years, but these trends largely hold true.

In a New York Times piece  Thomas Edsall details this shift in voting patterns.  In 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis won West Virginia with roughly 52 percent of the vote.  Barack Obama did not receive such hospitality from the Mountaineer State.  Not only did Mitt Romney garner 62 percent of the vote, but Barack obama didn’t even manage to win a single county (it is worth noting that this happened in a state with slightly higher union density than the country as a whole).[i]  Obama made up for much of this deficit in large suburban counties.  While Dukakis took a drubbing in suburbia, Obama was able to win over many people in these affluent, highly-educated communities.

Richard Florida provided more evidence of the changing Democratic electorate in a February piece for the Atlantic.  There is a positive correlation between the number of college graduates in a metro area and the share of votes that went to Obama, Florida says.  He also found positive correlations between Obama votes and members of the “creative class” (a repulsive, yet ubiquitous term) in a metro area.  Among this group, Florida includes those in the STEM fields, business, healthcare, arts and entertainment, and education.  On the other hand, there was a negative correlation between Obama votes and the share of “working class” voters in a particular region.  “For all of Obama’s union endorsements,” he writes, “metros with larger shares of blue-collar workers in manufacturing, transportation, and construction voted for Romney.”

These trends lead to a very important question for workers: what electoral role will organized labor have moving forward?  Labor is still a major force during election season, but this influence has translated into fewer victories as of late.  The Employee Free Choice Act has gone up in smoke, and even the ostensible victories that have come under President Obama, such as the Affordable Care Act, are beginning to receive criticism from some within the labor community.  Workers will not find a friend in members of the Republican Party, who haven’t seen a union-busting effort they don’t like.  But do they really have a future with the Democrats either?

I would argue yes, but only if they shift their definition of what it means to be “involved” in politics.  The Democratic coalition doesn’t rely solely on the “creative” types of Richard Florida’s work.  It also depends on strong turnout within communities of color.  Barack Obama received 93 percent of the African American vote in 2012.  Additionally, he took the Hispanic vote by a whopping 44 points.  This represents an increase for the Democratic presidential candidate of eight points over 2008, and 26 points over 2004.

At the same time that this demographic is cementing itself as a vital part of the Democratic coalition, it is also gaining more influence within the labor movement.  In a recent study, City University of New York professors Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce found that only 23 percent of New York City’s organized workforce is composed of white males, while 60 percent identify as either black or Latino.  To use a cliche, this ain’t your father’s labor movement.  The same demographic forces that are shaping Democratic politics are also shaping the constitution of our unions’ rank-and-file.

For the Democratic Party’s current electoral coalition to remain in tact, it must speak to the issues that our new working class cares about most.  This is where unions can find their power.  Despite what many talking heads believe, these workers care about more than just immigration reform.  Job availability, strong safety-net programs, and the right to organize on the job without retribution all matter too.  These issues have always mattered to labor, and unions can use their extensive manpower and resources more effectively to ensure that the Democrats help implement these priorities.  Endorsements are fine, but labor should not feel beholden to a candidate who fails to live up to a promise.  To have a real effect in the electoral realm, unions do not have to bankroll the campaigns of anyone with a “D” next to his or her name.  Instead, they need to organize around the issues that matter to their members, whose votes Democrats cannot do without.

[i] Check table 1 towards the bottom of this page from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Zach Cunningham is a  first-year Master’s student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  In 2008 Iheworked as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Youngstown, Ohio, and after graduating from Indiana University in 2010 he taught high school in Arkansas and participated in the City University of New York’s Union Semester program.  He  blogs at I Hear Them All.


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