Research Findings

Public Sector and Politically Engaged: The Role of Unions

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May 14, 2021

Research finds that public sector workers are more politically active and civically engaged than the broader public. Our work investigates the role of labor unions in amplifying and shaping this participation. 

With one in three public sector workers unionized, unionization has widespread implications. Public workers make up nearly half of all union members in the United States, including large numbers of women and people of color. However, the political terrain of public unions is shifting with the passage of restrictive laws and increased political opposition, especially over the past decade. This opposition threatens to erode public union membership, potentially undermining political and civic participation.

Public service motivation

Extensive research finds that, compared to their private sector counterparts, public sector workers are more likely to votedonate blood, and contact public officials, and participate in a range of other social and political activities

Public administration scholars explain this increased civic-mindedness as “an individual’s predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions and organizations,” or a “public service motivation” (PSM). PSM theory claims that those inclined to public engagement are particularly drawn to public sector work, accounting for the heightened levels of civic and political activities of public workers. There has been little prior research on how unions may shape these dynamics.

What about unions?

We know unions develop the skills, education, and identities of workers, directly mobilizing them to engage in political life, resulting in increased political activity among union members compared to non-union workers. We argue that these same dynamics contribute to the prior findings in the public service research. Public sector workers are active, in part, because they are more likely to be unionized. 

Our research considers how labor unions amplify and channel public sector workers’ political participation. Using the Current Population Survey’s (CPS) Civic Engagement and Volunteer Supplements in available years between 2008 and 2015, we examined nine activities, organized conceptually into broader activity types; protest activities (i.e, march, rally, or protest, and boycott); electoral politics (supported candidate and vote local elections); civic and political communication (i.e., discussed politics, attend a meeting in the last 12 months where political issues were discussed, contact public official/express views); and service work (general volunteer activities and charitable contributions). We then analyzed how the actions of union members differ from non-union members.

Unions matter for participation

Consistent with prior PSM research, we find that public sector workers are far more likely to engage in civic and political acts than private sector workers. 

Union membership drives these public sector dynamics. We find that unionized public sector workers have higher participation than their non-union counterparts. We observe particularly strong union effects in marches, rallies, and protests, supporting political candidates, and donating money to charitable causes. 

For example, public sector workers are 1.7 times more likely to participate in marches, rallies, and protests compared to private sector workers. However, these types of actions are almost entirely driven by union members. The effect for non-union public sector workers is notably absent. By contrast, we find unionized public sector workers account for this increased civic engagement. Our analysis reveals unionized public sector workers appear to drive the heightened levels of participation for these activities. 

We also analyze other types of electoral and communication activities—discussing politics, attending meetings, contacting public officials, and voting in local elections. For these acts we see that both union and non-union public workers participate more than their private sector counterparts. These findings support PSM predictions: public workers have a stronger orientation to public engagement than private sector workers, so are more likely to participate in a range of activities. However, among all public workers, unionized workers are still far more likely to participate than non-union workers. 

For volunteer work, union membership does not play a large role—all public workers participate more than private workers, regardless of union status. Union members, however, are far more likely to give money to charitable causes. Our findings suggest that unions channel participation toward political participation, broadly defined—protest, electoral political, and political communication— and less so toward service work. 

Why should we care?

Taken together, these findings establish the importance of union dynamics in the political and civic lives of public workers. While service-oriented individuals may select into public work, public workers’ political lives are amplified by unionized workplaces. Thus, analyzing union effects is crucial to understanding the active political lives of public workers—a lens absent from the more individually oriented “public service motivation” model. 

These findings have implications for future research into public workers’ political activities. While a large sociological literature traces the economic impact of union decline in the United States, the political impacts have been less studied. These findings demonstrate that the political lives of public workers are amplified by unionization. 

Although the future of public sector unionism is still undetermined, the increased hostility toward unions may be cause for concern. Some politicians may see an opportunity to undermine political opposition by restricting the activities of public sector unions, especially after the Supreme Court’s Janus decision that threatens union funding. Still, the energy of contemporary teachers strikes brings the possibility of an “upsurge” in unionism like the public sector experienced in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to dampening overall participation, public sector union decline may disproportionately erode the participation of women and people of color. African American and women workers are more likely to be employed in the public sector. Changing employment relationships in the public sector has particularly hurt the earnings and mobility of these workers. Our research suggests that union decline would also disproportionately mute their influence in political life, further disenfranchising these groups. Therefore, understanding the role of labor unions in political and civic life is crucial for promoting fuller democratic participation and strengthening democracy in the United States.

Read more

Jasmine Kerrissey, Tiamba Wilkerson, and Nathan Meyers. “The Political and Civic Lives of Public Sector Workers: Unions and Public Service Motivation” in Sociological Forum 2020.

Image: Charles Edward Miller via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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