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Consider the following social science experiment: go into a unionized steel mill parking lot in western Pennsylvania, look at the bumper stickers and track the political messages. Given the longstanding bond between unions and the Democratic party, you might predict widespread support for Democratic candidates. Yet when the then Harvard undergraduate Lainey Newman conducted such unconventional field research during the Covid pandemic, encouraged by her faculty mentor Theda Skocpol, results indicated otherwise. There was a QAnon sticker here, a Back the Blue flag there. But one name proliferated: Donald Trump.
It all supported a surprising claim: industrial union members in the shrunken manufacturing hubs of the US are abandoning their historic loyalty to the Democrats for the Republican party.
“The most interesting point, how telling it is, is that those stickers were out in the open,” Newman says. “Everyone in the community knew. It was not something people hide.
“It would not have been something old-timers would have been OK with, frankly. They stood up against … voting for Republicans, that type of thing.”
Newman documented this political shift and the complex reasons for it in her senior thesis, with Skocpol as her advisor. Now the recent graduate and the veteran professor have teamed up to turn the project into a book: Rust Belt Union Blues: Why Working-Class Voters Are Turning Away from the Democratic Party.
The book comes out as organized labor is returning to the headlines, whether through the United Auto Workers strike at the big three US carmakers or through the battle to buy a former industrial powerhouse, US Steel. In the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election, Trump is again wooing union voters. On the 3 September edition of ABC’s This Week, the Manhattan Institute president, Reihan Salam, noted that Trump “was trying to appeal to UAW members to talk about, for example, this effort to transition away from combustion engine vehicles”.
Newman reflects: “It is relatively well-known [that] union members aren’t voting for Democrats like they used to. What we say is that for a very long time, Democrats did take unions for granted. They didn’t reinvest in the relationship with labor that would have been necessary to maintain some of the alliances and trust between rank-and-file labor and the Democrats.”
Once, the bond was as strong as the steel worked by union hands across western Pennsylvania, especially in Pittsburgh, known to some as “The City That Built America”. Retirees repeatedly mentioned this in interviews with Newman and Skocpol. An 81-year-old explained longtime hostility to the Republican party in unionized steel mills and coal mines: “They figure that there was not a Republican in the world who took care of a working guy.” A union newsletter, one of many the authors examined, urged readers to “Vote Straight ‘D’ This November”. Even in the 1980 presidential election, which Ronald Reagan won decisively, union-heavy counties in Pennsylvania were a good predictor of votes for the incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter.
The subsequent sea change is summed up in one of Newman and Skocpol’s chapter titles, From Union Blue to Trump Red. In 2016, the connection between Pennsylvania union voters and Democratic support all but evaporated as Trump flipped the normally Democratic state en route to victory. His showing that year set a new bar for support for a GOP presidential candidate among rank-and-file union members, bettering Reagan’s standard, with such members often defying leadership to back Trump.
“It’s a myth that it all happened suddenly with Reagan,” says Skocpol. “Not really – it took longer.”
‘In Union There Is Strength’
To understand these changes, Newman and Skocpol examined larger transformations at work across the Rust Belt, especially in western Pennsylvania. It helped that they have Rust Belt backgrounds: Newman grew up in Pittsburgh, where she returned to research the book, while Skocpol was raised in the former industrial city of Wyandotte, Michigan, located south of Detroit.
Once, as they now relate, unions wove themselves into community life. Union halls hosted events from weddings to retirement parties. Members showcased their pride through union memorabilia, some of which is displayed in the book, including samples from Skocpol’s 3,000-item collection. Among her favorites: a glass worker’s badge featuring images of drinking vessels and the motto “In Union There Is Strength”.
That strength eventually dissipated, including with the implosion of the steel industry in western Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 80s. (According to one interviewee, the resulting population shift explains why there are so many Pittsburgh Steelers fans across the US.) In formerly thriving communities, cinemas and shoe stores closed down, as did union halls. The cover of Skocpol and Newman’s book depicts a line of shuttered storefronts in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the steel town whose former mayor, the Democrat John Fetterman, is now a US senator.
Not all union members left western Pennsylvania. As the book explains, those continuing in employment did so in changed conditions. Steelworkers battled each other for dwindling jobs, capital held ever more power and Pittsburgh itself changed. The Steel City sought to reinvent itself through healthcare and higher education, steelworkers wondering where they stood.
Blue-collar workers found a more receptive climate among conservative social organizations that filled the vacuum left by retreating unions: gun clubs that benefited from a strong hunting tradition and megachurches that replaced closed local churches. The region even became a center of activity for the Tea Party movement, in opposition to Barack Obama, a phenomenon Skocpol has researched on the national level.
In 2016, although Trump and Hillary Clinton made a nearly equal number of visits to western Pennsylvania, they differed in where they went and what they said. Clinton headed to Pittsburgh. Trump toured struggling factory towns, to the south and west. In one, Monessen, he pledged to make American steel great again – a campaign position, the authors note, unuttered for decades and in stark contrast with Clinton’s anti-coal stance. As president, Trump arguably followed through, with a 2018 tariff on aluminum and steel imports. The book cites experts who opposed the move for various reasons, from harm to the economy to worsened relations with China.
The authors say their book is not meant to criticize unions or the Democratic party. Democrats, they say, are taking positive steps in response to union members’ rightward shift.
“We didn’t have time to research at length all the new kinds of initiatives that have been taken in a state like Wisconsin, like Georgia,” says Skocpol. “They have learned some of the lessons, are trying to create year-round, socially-embedded presences.”
In 2020, Joe Biden made multiple visits to western Pennsylvania and ended up narrowly winning Erie county, which had been trending red. As president, he has sought to have the federal government purchase more US-made products, while launching renewable energy initiatives through union labor. Skocpol says Trump’s more ambitious promises, including an across-the-board 10% tariff, propose an unrealistic bridge to a bygone era.
“Will Trump promise to do all these things?” asks Skocpol. “Of course he will. Will he actually do them more effectively if he becomes president again? God help us all.”
Rust Belt Union Blues is published in the US by Columbia University Press