Where Have All the Union Voters Gone?

Property Workers Rally
APMembers of the Service Workers International Union rally in downtown Cleveland.
The campaign for the White House, 2016 edition, is cranking up. At last report, some nine Democrats, 18 Republicans, and 18 more third-party and registered independent candidates had thrown their hats in the ring. (Some of them, you may even have heard of.)

With 45 candidates in the running, every vote will count as these folks head to the primaries. Unfortunately for the candidates, one particular class of voter may be in short supply this election cycle: union voters.

There (Was) Power In a Union

That's the upshot of a new poll released by Pew Research a few weeks back, which finds that despite their continuing popularity, actual labor union membership continues to dwindle. According to ClosetheGapCA, a political organization in California, "state and local labor unions are a powerful organizing force" that can help get a campaign off the ground. Moreover, "an endorsement from unions in your district provides a 'seal of approval,' encouraging members of the labor union to vote for the endorsed candidate."

Citing research from the International Association of Fire Fighters, ClosetheGap notes that "seven in ten union members say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who is supported by the AFL-CIO and national unions ..."

And yet, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Congressional Research Service data, Pew notes that union membership has plummeted to just 11.1 percent last year from about 20.1 percent in 1983 -- and a high of 34.8 percent of "wage and salary workers" in 1954. As a result, not all union endorsements are worth what they used to be.

Some Unions Are More Equal Than Others

The damage to union membership rolls, you see, while widespread, hasn't been distributed evenly. According to Pew data, membership in unions has declined in percentage terms both among public-sector workers (teachers, policemen, government bureaucrats) and in the private sector (steelworkers, autoworkers). Actual union members in the public sector, however, have grown to 7.2 million today from 5.7 million in 1983. In contrast, private sector union rolls have plunged 38 percent, to just 7.4 million today from 11.9 million 32 years ago.

Pew data show that today, the two jobs categories boasting the highest levels of union membership both lay in the public sector: "education, training, and library," and "protective service" (police officers and firefighters). In each profession, roughly 35 percent of the labor force in unionized.

The two professions least likely to be unionized are "sales and related" and "farming, fishing, and forestry," followed by workers in the food industry and the IT sector.

In between, four professions still boasting relatively robust union membership, but suffering steep declines regardless, are "construction and extraction," "transportation and material moving," installation, maintenance, and repair," and "production."

What It Means to You This Election Cycle

Electorally speaking, the steepest cuts in union membership seem to be falling on key "industrial" demographics. This could diminish the influence of traditional powerhouses such as the AFL-CIO and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) in the upcoming elections. In contrast, continued strength in the police and teachers unions suggest these traditionally key constituencies for the Republicans, and Democrats, respectively, can expect to receive prolific pandering this election season.

This will be an important dynamic for taxpayers to monitor this election cycle. Sure, overall, union membership is lower today than it's been in decades, and continuing to trend down. But the relative strength of public sector unions, and the fact that their numbers are growing -- in contrast to the private sector -- means that America's ongoing problem with paying for public pensions isn't going away any time soon. With so many politicians angling for the few union voters still available to be swayed, the pressure to continue making promises -- payable at a later date by taxpayers -- will be difficult to resist.

Taxpayers, this election season, remember: As you reach for the ballot pen with one hand, keep your other hand on your wallet.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith's mind is still boggled by that number. 45 candidates? Seriously? Rich has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any stocks mentioned above, either. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond
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