The American Political Economy Blog

Symposium on Labor and Workers in the American Political Economy

APE Book Feature: Interview with Theda Skocpol about Rust Belt Union Blues

Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol's new book shows the importance of union structure and strategy for the formation of social identities.
APE Book Feature: Interview with Theda Skocpol about Rust Belt Union Blues

In Rust Belt Union Blues, collaborators Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol tackle an important puzzle: why have many blue collar union members shifted their allegiances away from Democrats to the Republican Party in recent decades? This includes record levels of support from union members for Donald J. Trump in 2016 and 2020—and potentially in 2024 as well. One striking example: in recent polling from the New York Times, in the six closest swing states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—Biden and Trump were virtually tied among union members when asked about their 2024 votes.

Drawing on creative research methods that combine interviews, archival records, and survey analysis, Newman and Skocpol advance an argument stressing how unions foster and propagate social identities among their members and how unions are embedded in their local communities. They argue that many unions have lost the powerful identities and locally-rooted presence they once fostered in places like western Pennsylvania, which is the subject of their book.

In making these arguments, Newman and Skocpol offer contributions to our understanding of the labor movement, and especially the ways that work and the workplace are structured and embedded in broader communities—key themes of American Political Economy. They also offer an excellent model of research on political behavior and attitudes that leverages survey research—as current research often does—but also considers other methodological approaches, such as leveraging archival records and interviews, for understanding how individuals are embedded in social organizations and relationships that change over time.

In what follows, I offer a lightly edited transcript of a conversation with Theda Skocpol about the book, including its genesis, argument, methods, and implications for understanding the labor movement and political life in deindustrializing regions like western Pennsylvania.

AHF: Can you share a little bit about the partnership with your coauthor, Lainey Newman, which led to this book?

TS: Rust Belt Union Blues is an unusual partnership. I've been studying American civic life and social movements and voluntary associations for a long, long time, but haven't done that much specifically on unions. However, around the time of the Covid pandemic, an outstanding Harvard undergraduate who grew up in western Pennsylvania, Lainey Newman, was doing a senior thesis. Her thesis was already under way when she had to go home and stay home in western Pennsylvania during the pandemic. She was asking in her thesis: why did we see such a huge change in the political orientations of union workers, particularly steel workers, who were the kings of labor, in western Pennsylvania in that part of the Rust Belt, in the mid to late 20th century, and by now are offering a lot of the rank and file, offering a lot of support, along with their family members and friends and neighbors for Donald Trump?

Her research, found that this was an era in which the steel industry was more or less abandoned and collapsed, a lot of the mills closed, the Steelworkers lost a lot of their members and their dues, which obviously matters in politics. But we didn't think that was enough of an explanation for why still unionized steelworkers—not just all the others in western Pennsylvania have—abruptly shifted in big majorities toward Trump Republicans. Steelworkers had been drifting toward the Republicans in the big counties, except for Allegheny, where Pittsburgh is, for some time.

So the puzzle was: why is this happening? Is it happening with other kinds of unionized workers in the region? And what, beyond the obvious loss of union dues and memberships, might help to make sense of this term?

AHF: What were the initial hypotheses that you were testing to answer this puzzle and what kind of data did you bring to test those hypotheses?

TS: One answer that was out there, of course, beyond the decline of the steel industry, is that these predominantly white working class people are racist in their underlying attitudes. That mix attracts them to Trump. Okay, maybe there's some truth to that. But relying on racial attitudes of individuals to explain a change that's been unfolding for decades, among people whose fathers, in many cases, were loyal Democrats in the steelworkers union and probably were not less racially prejudiced in their individual outlooks in the 1960s and 1970s than their union descendants are now—we thought that's not an adequate explanation either.

And so Lainey set out to do interviews with steelworkers to get some insights into how they understand their union membership, their political loyalties, and any connections between the two. She also included among the interviewees, retirees who could reflect back on what things were like before and how they had changed. So, that is the kind of core puzzle and evidentiary base.

Then after Lainey won top prizes at Harvard for her senior thesis, she stayed on for another year, and we decided to add more evidence to the book, by getting runs of union newsletters for the Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. These runs of newsletters over many decades, some local newsletters, union publications of all kinds, helped us to flesh out the organizational side of the universe of organizations unions were part of and how that has changed.

So that's the puzzle and that's the evidence. Obviously it relies on some of the quantitative evidence people have put together using national surveys. But national surveys are a big problem because they don't ask people which unions they're members of. Maybe they ask public sector versus private. But you know, the difference between a medical worker in the SEIU versus a steelworker or an auto worker or somebody in the building trades, that is just not something you're going to get out of surveys, even if they ask the same questions over time, which they often do not. So we could use those only a little bit.

AHF: What is the main argument that you and Lainey put forward in the book to answer the puzzle of why steelworkers had changed their political attachments and loyalties in recent decades?

Our big finding is really that there was a union identity that was very strong. In the late 20th century, after the Steelworkers became one of the major industrial unions of the United States, and certainly in the region of western Pennsylvania. That was the identity of the union “man”. Now I'm going to put man in quotes, and I'm putting that in quotes because some of the union men were women, though not very many, but there were always some. And it was in some ways an identity of a tough guy who belongs to the union brotherhood, who was loyal to his fellow union members. We found that loyalty meant being loyal to the collective and to each other, having each other's backs. Loyalty extended to when somebody gets sick you covered for them, so it was not just in union negotiations, or strikes. We found that the union man of the mid-twentieth century had a pretty clear sense of why unions mattered, because either they themselves or their grand, their fathers or grandparents, or their fellow workers, or older relatives remembered what work was like before the unions created better work conditions and offered better wages and benefits. So there was a sense of history.

We also found a very strong sense of pride in the work of industrial workers, and steelworkers specifically. We found that people talked about the pride in doing tough work, and the skill of doing it was important for the trades. The process of learning a trade, which was often managed by the union itself, was also a source of pride. And this was all part of the same identity.

This source of union identity was then linked to politics. As some of our interviewees put it, a union man just didn't vote for anybody but Democrats. And we found that Democrats were part of the union world as well—but not because some people sitting in a union office in Pittsburgh or Washington sent down orders of a candidate they were endorsing.

In fact, we found a 1955 survey conducted by the Steelworkers that had just dozens and dozens of very specific questions of their members. And their members expressed the same skepticism back then that they do now that they do now about having their union bosses tell them who to vote for. They didn't like the idea they were all doing what the union bosses wanted.

Instead, we found that they did like the idea of the union being involved in the community. So that directed our attention, including what we heard in our interviews, to the fact that Democrats had a lot of sway back then because they were part of local communities. In the second year of the project, we spent a lot of time fleshing out what we call the community and social underpinnings of the union and identity.

Let’s pause on the methods for a moment. You could take the initial findings from our interviews about the union man identity, and wander off into surveys or focus groups or anything that would kind of enact the assumption that so much of the social sciences have now that everything is driven by individual preferences. But we took a different approach.

But, when these interviews had shown constant references to the union as being part of the neighborhoods and communities and family lives of workers. And so we spent a lot of time gathering evidence and fleshing out the idea, mentioned by our interviewees, that the union was part of the neighborhoods and communities and family lives of workers. Union halls were one important part of that presence.

We found a 1960 booklet that listed the location and offered pictures of all the union halls in western Pennsylvania, which we could map. And we could hear in the interviews we conducted what these halls were like. Lots of weddings and retirement ceremonies and personal and family ceremonies, as well as union events, happened there.

We could also look at the interrelations between the union halls and other civic associations through old city directories and union publications of union locals. Members of surrounding ethnic groups and other associations would drop into the union hall for a meeting or a group of union brothers might go drinking after work at the Polish Club, for example. We looked at churches and the involvement of many of their clergy, the priests and their ministers in union affairs.

All of those social ties bring us back to politics. Those social underpinnings of the union in local communities showed us that in many ways, the United Steelworkers top brass did not have to depend on a formal endorsement of their preferred candidates. They could instead almost assume that that vast network of peer groups, which local Democrats were visibly part of, would create social pressures so that you just didn't vote for a Republican.

The last part of the analysis was: how did all this change? And we talk about the decay of big labor from above and below. Obviously, the above is the closure of steel mills. We found that, of course, as those mills closed, a process that was hard fought, our unions tried to prevent it, but Democrats did not come to their aid—not the way the Obama-Biden Administration did with the auto industry after 2008, which they noted, all of our interviewees noted that. So that played out – and a lot of local community ties were severed in the process.

You could say, well, is that a Bob Putnam social capital story? And it is, to some degree, except that we think workers increasingly have alternative sources of social capital to the union. And we spent some time fleshing out what people told us in their interviews. We find that instead of staying after work with their coworkers, workers increasingly had to often go home and help take care of the kids as gender relations in the household changed. But workers also found other places to socialize, for instance, going to hang out at gun clubs—sometimes bringing the whole family. Gun clubs are all over the place in western Pennsylvania, and they have adopted many more social and family functions in recent years and are linked, explicitly or not, into right wing messages through the NRA. But they are local venues for socializing. And beyond gun clubs, megachurches have taken the place of many workers’ and families’ lives, taking the place of the smaller churches that were all over the place in steel towns.

So we think that what has happened is that social and family life has shifted to other venues outside of unions that are linked to very different political actors and very different political messages.

Democrats and unions have not responded well to this. They have responded by relying on television messages and lobbying operations in Washington. Taking what little money they had left out of maintaining those little League baseball teams and other groups in local communities. So in many ways, that's the story we see for the steelworkers. That helps us understand why, if you go, as Lainey did, into worker parking lots in the remaining steel mills of unionized western Pennsylvania. you're going to see stickers for Trump. You're going to see stickers for gun clubs. You're going to be stickers for the right wing churches. It's a really different picture from 50 years ago.

AHF: In the book, you argue that some of these trends in the Steelworkers union were not preordained, that there were other options available to them. You do this by comparing the trajectory of the Steelworkers with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Can you share what you learned from that comparison?

At the end of the book, we focus on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which has plenty of sisters in it now. We wondered: were the same things happening there as well? The IBEW makes for an interesting comparison because unlike the steelworkers, electrical workers have never worked in one place or one mill the way steelworkers did. That's not the way Electrical Brotherhood work has ever been organized. They work in projects. They travel around, usually over across a pretty broad district.

We decided it would be fascinating to try to get runs of newsletters that were reaching local members in the IBEW. That was not easy. We had to scour archives and get some people to give us old copies. But what we did was analyze IBEW newsletters from the 1960s to the recent period and found that the electrical workers had adapted to the fact that they didn't have co-located members. To overcome the physical and geographic separation of their members, their newsletters provided a lot of coverage sent in by their individual members and sent in by local union leaders about local activities and about family and community activities.

That’s different from the Steelworkers Union newsletter, which was mainly talking about big picture business and the union, for many years until recently—because they could assume that local communication and socialization was happening outside of the newsletter.

Given these contrasting newsletter communication tactics, our hypothesis was: maybe the electrical workers pay more attention to what their union leaders want, and perhaps have seen less of a transition to the Republican party than steelworkers rank and file.  

Well, how to test that hypothesis? There's no ideal data out there. But, we found one study that had done a statistical examination of the question of international trade exposure and had actually broken down survey responses union by unions. So we got them to send us their raw data, and we found a dozen or so responses written out by the electrical workers and the steel workers, and they go in the direction that we expected. The electrical workers were respectful about their union leadership, which is communicating with them pretty regularly about everything. Electrical workers also reported leaning toward the Democrats, whereas the Steelworkers—you can't print what they were saying about both the Democrats and their union leadership. And regardless of the endorsements coming from the international, most steelworkers were self-described Republicans or Trumpers. So, these findings are congruent with our hypothesis that the organization of work in relation to community and the ongoing communication strategies of the two Internationals have had significant political implications.

Our findings also suggest that other people need to do research that actually looks at specific union organizations and activities the way we did in this book. We hope the book will inspire more work of this kind.  There are many opportunities for new research that takes specific unions and the social ties of members seriously, because too little research of that kind is out there now.

About the Author
Theda Skocpol
Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology
Harvard University