How Unions Could Help Solve the Democratic Deficit

Rafael Gomez, Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University and Alex Bryson, NIESR, CEP


Fewer people eligible to vote are casting ballots today as compared to just a generation ago. It’s a disturbing trend that has appeared across all major English-speaking democracies and it shows no signs of abating.


Virtually undetected, this democratic deficit has been flying beneath the radar of most political press reports and yet the numbers are staggering. In Britain, nearly 8 out of 10 eligible voters voted in the 1970s versus just under 6 out of 10 that voted in the 2000s. And across all major Anglo-Saxon economies (see Figure 1) the trends look much the same.


New Zealand, Ireland and Britain had higher starting points in voter turnout in the early seventies as compared to Canada or the United States, but by the first decade of the new millennium all countries seemed to be converging to a much lower voter participation rate.


What lies behind these figures?

Figure 1

Source: Authors calculations based on International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) database:


Well, for one thing the voting data mirror quite closely the trends that have appeared for union membership over the same time frame.


Viewed as a percentage of the total eligible workforce, union density figures (see Figure 2) have witnessed a similar collapse. In fact, looking at the two graphs one notices that not only are the declines similar in scale for each country, the ordering of voter turnout (in levels) is identical to the ranking of trade union density, with New Zealand at the top, Ireland, Britain and Canada in the middle (in that order) and the US at the bottom.


Figure 2

Source: Authors calculations based on Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data: OECD StatsExtracts Library


These are startling correlations, but is there an actual story here that merits writing about?


We think so. In research conducted with two other coauthors we explored the nature of union membership status and the proclivity to vote using a representative sample of Canadian workers.  What we found was that union membership is associated with a roughly 10-12 percentage point increase in the propensity to vote. Even after controlling for other factors that could conceivably affect voter participation (such as age, gender and marital status) union status still had a significantly positive effect on voting of nearly 6-7 percentage points. This union-voter effect we think is driven by two factors.


The first reason why union members are more likely to vote than non-members is that unions increase wages for their members and higher incomes are a significant determinant of voting. The poor vote less than the rich a sad fact reflected in many rich western democracies. So when we control for wages, we can see that about half (50 percent) of the union gap is actually due to this positive union wage affect.


The second reason why union members are more apt to vote is perhaps the more interesting.

What happens at work has long been noted as a driver of what happens to workers outside of the workplace. No less an admirer of the capitalist system, Adam Smith nevertheless decried the problems that mind-numbing tasks could exert over workers. In the Wealth of Nations he states that “…certain inconveniences arise from a commercial spirit. Men’s views are confined, and ‘when a person’s whole attention is bestowed on the seventeenth part of a pin or the eightieth part of a button,’ he becomes stupid.”


We feel something similar occurs with union representation at work, but in a positive way. If employees are exposed to the formalities of collective bargaining and union representation at the workplace they also perhaps increase their attachment to structures of democratic governance outside of the workplace.  They learn that voting is part of life and perhaps are more apt to see the benefits arising from the collective provision of public goods.  Put another way, if workplace voice and civic voice are complements in the sense that they foster a shared understanding of democracy’s value and common cause then we would expect the decline of union representation to affect the civic attitudes and democratic behaviours of individuals outside of the workplace as well. This, we argue, is what has been partly to blame for the falls in voter turnout since the 1970s.


And lest one get caught up with the proverbial reverse causality debate (i.e., maybe voter decline is what has caused union decline?) Australia shows us that union density is being driven down by forces other than democratic deficits. Because of mandatory voting laws dating back to 1924, Australia has had about a 90 percent voter turnout rate for most of its major elections. Yet union density in Australia has fallen from over 40 percent in 1972 to under 20 percent in 2011. The message seems clear, had Australia not instituted its mandatory voting provisions it would likely have witnessed a democratic deficit much like its counterparts across the Anglo-American world.


But what also appears equally clear is that getting people active in politics and engaged in civic behaviour involves more than just passing laws compelling people to vote. When we looked at a range of civic behaviours beyond voting – i.e., behaviours that ranged from low-effort (e.g., signing a petition) to the most involved in terms of time (e.g., participating in a demonstration or public march) – we saw a marked increase in the participation rate for union members.   The largest absolute gaps reside in petition signing (17 points), boycotted/chose a product for ethical reasons (16 points) and attendance at a public meeting (15 points). But interestingly the largest union gaps in relative terms occurred for those civic behaviours that are the most onerous in terms of effort and time (e.g., participation in a demonstration or public march and volunteering for a political party). In both cases, given the low frequencies at which these behaviours occurred in the data, the union gap represented an 80 percent (5 points out of an overall mean of 6 percent) and 50 percent (1.6 points out of an overall frequency of 3.2 percent) share of the total observed rates for demonstrating and political volunteering respectively.


Union membership, it seems, has a greater effect on broader civic engagement than even the limited data on unions and voting have been telling us. Which means that the withering of union membership should cause all those who care about democracy (right or left of the political spectrum) to worry.


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