Executive Summary: "What Do Unions Do to Voting Turnout?" by Richard B. Freeman

American trade unions spend considerable resources on political activity. As union density has fallen, unions have increased their effort to mobilize union voters. In the 2000 Presidential election, the AFL-CIO reported that unions made 8 million phone calls to members, sent out 12 million pieces of mail, distributed 14 million leaflets at union workplaces once a week from September to Election day and spent more than $43 million to increase the turnout of members and their families and convince them to vote for union-endorsed candidates. How successful are union efforts? To what extent do union members turn out on election day more than non-union members? Can unions maintain their political influence despite falling density?


In this paper, Richard B. Freeman attempts to answer these questions by examining four overlapping data sources: the Voting News Service (VNS) exit polls, which underlie media claims that unions had a huge and increasing impact on elections in the 1990s, the November Current Population Survey (CPS) voting supplements, which provides the largest sample of voting by union status, the National Election Studies (NES) surveys, and the General Social Survey (GSS). By cross-reference data obtained in these various surveys, Freeman offers a more sophisticated and accurate assessment of the union impact on the voter turnout of members and their families.


His findings undermine the well-publicized claim that the union share of the electorate rose massively in the 1990s. Data suggest that union members are about 12 percentage points more likely to vote than non-union members and that nonunion persons in union households are only modestly more likely to vote than persons in nonunion households. Freeman finds, however, that most of the higher rate of turnout of unionists is due to socioeconomic factors that differentiate union members from their non-union peers. The difference in turnout between members and non-members with comparable characteristics is only about 4 percentage points. Finally, freeman identifies a sizable group of nonunion persons with pro-union attitudes that unions could potentially influence to maintain the union impact on elections, even with declines in union density.


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