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Economic Determinants of Voting in an Era of Union Decline


  • *Direct correspondence to Jake Rosenfeld, Department of Sociology, University of Washington, 211 Savery Hall, Box 353340, Seattle, WA 98195 〈〉. The author will share all data and coding information with those wishing to replicate the study. A previous version of the article was presented at Princeton University's Office of Population Research seminar series, Princeton, NJ, April 24, 2007. Thanks to Bruce Western, Paul DiMaggio, and Paul Starr for insights on prior drafts of the article.


Objective. The objective of this article is to test competing hypotheses regarding union vote effects by economic sector. Overlooked in existing research on political participation and the labor movement is de-unionization's sectoral dimension: declining union rolls is a private-sector phenomenon. The sectoral dimension of union decline carries important political consequences if the influence of unions on voter turnout varies by sector.

Method. Using Current Population Survey (CPS) November Voting and Registration Supplements for all national elections between 1984 and 2006, I estimate union vote effects for public- and private-sector employees.

Results. The results of the analyses reveal that while union members continue to vote at higher rates than otherwise similar nonmembers, the union effect is nearly three times as large for private-sector members: private-sector unionists have a predicted probability of voting 6.7 points higher than nonmembers, while public-sector members have a predicted probability of voting only 2.4 points higher than nonmembers.

Conclusions. Given the small fraction of private-sector workers now in labor unions, recent fluctuations in the unionization rate have little aggregate affect on turnout. Given that private-sector union members tend to be less educated and earn less than their public-sector counterparts, the near disappearance of private-sector unions from the economic landscape removes an important institutional buffer against political inequality in the United States.