As union halls closed and membership numbers dwindled, other networks and community group influences, often propelling more conservative values and messages, have become more central to the daily lives of workers and residents.

By Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol 

The following is an excerpt from Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol’s Rust Belt Union Blues: Why Working-Class Voters are Turning Away from the Democratic Party to be published by Columbia University Press. 

The ground-level research we offer here helps to explain why voting for Democrats is no longer a taken-for-granted stance for many blue-collar workers—and it also illuminates the new conservative-inflected identities and ties that have flourished in the vacuums left by unions’ receding community presence. This book does not provide a full analysis of the spread of conservative engagements among many sets of Americans. Instead, as it pertains to understanding the ties and loyalties seen now among many blue-collar union workers, especially white workers, our work adds crucial specificity to purely aggregate analyses of broad categories defined by race, gender, or family forms. We look more closely at where people live, the groups they join, and the people with whom they interact. Changes in such social involvements tell us as much or more about shifting political outlooks and loyalties as aggregate analyses do and simultaneously illuminate the specific mechanisms by which group identities and loyalties can shift over time. In overwhelmingly white Rust Belt areas like western Pennsylvania, male workers have not recently or suddenly started owning and using guns, nor have they recently or suddenly started harboring racist and sexist views. Attitudes tallied in snapshot polls may seem racist or sexist, but the overall demographics of many Rust Belt regions have not changed enormously, and there is little reason to believe that workers now are significantly more prejudiced than their predecessors were decades ago.

Of course, many ongoing transformations of U.S. society and politics since the middle of the twentieth century have contributed to changing Republican Party (GOP) and Democratic Party fortunes. The civil rights movement set in motion the realignment of regional and racial voting blocs, making the two parties both more competitive and more ideological from the 1970s onward. Religious shifts and transformations of family, gender, and sexual norms spurred the rise of the politicized Christian right and its marriage to the GOP. Following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the arrival of new immigrant populations amid economic blows to U.S. manufacturing and unionized industries sparked ever-sharper controversies about immigrant rights and American national identity. All of these unfolding, large-scale trends have fueled party polarization as political elites have chosen to push correlative social divisions. Polarization has left Republicans and Democrats in close competition nationwide, even as one party or the other has gained or lost ground in specific states or regions. These macro-level trends have informed the work of scholars who have used surveys and demographic analyses to explain the decline of the Democratic Party via demographic and attitudinal changes. Indeed, though some scholars point to union resource depletions as the key to changes in working- class politics, others point to macro social changes and stress evidence of conservative cultural values in current national opinion polls.

We find answers in the changing meanings of union affiliation for workers who have become willing to ignore, or contravene, union messages they once accepted, and we stress the social accompaniments of waning union links to Rust Belt communities and regional activities. Previous scholarship has not fully grappled with these realities. Most authors presume that workers shift their political loyalties and votes when they are no longer unionized or, if they remain affiliated, when their unions lose resources and capacities to the point that even members see their unions as ineffective. For instance, in their working paper entitled “Union Membership Attitudes and Participation,” management studies scholars Daniel Gallagher and George Strauss argue that union members perceive the union either as an agent for large-scale change or as a bureaucratic entity that looks out for their best interests. But neither characterization captures what we have heard from our interviewees or what we see in related ethnographic data. Either speaking for themselves or noting changes in their co-unionists, many union members voice suspicion or even outright animosity about unions and their officials; many do not see the union as an organization that advocates on their behalf in any way. Why have such dismissive or hostile stances toward unions increased in prevalence?

Our analysis suggests that workers’ changing views of unions and decreased willingness to take political cues from them are due in significant part to changes in degrees and kinds of social embeddedness. As unions seem less salient and more alien— even to those who are formally members—enrolled workers as well as their neighbors and community members are less amenable to supporting union-recommended policies or candidates. In line with ideas from political scientist Robert Putnam and sociologist Dan Clawson, we highlight ways in which waning interconnectedness among union workers contributes to shifts toward right-wing voting and advocacy. Because workers are no longer as involved in union activities and groups as they used to be, their social identities are less connected to their unions and they thus pay less (if any) heed to political messages from union leadership. Often without explaining exactly how or why, scholars using cultural approaches posit that waning industrial areas have swung conservative in response to the increased “salience” of “social issues” about race, immigration, abortion, and guns. But a generalized cultural focus can obscure more specific, dynamic factors. How, when, where, and why have union members, many of whom have long held the same outlooks on guns, abortion, and even race, come to prioritize highly partisan and emotionally charged understandings of such questions—while increasingly ignoring or tuning out alternative emphases and arguments proclaimed by union leaders?

In this book, we cannot fully answer all the specific questions about the overarching rise of so-called social issues in Rust Belt America, but we will offer new insights and hypotheses about why so many of today’s successors to proud “union men” and loyal working-class Democrats of the past have recently become self-declared conservatives and supporters of Donald Trump and his allies. We suggest that right-wing organizations and networks have moved into some of the space vacated by receding grassroots unionism.

To help account for shifting ties and loyalties, we also expand upon research by Matthew Lacombe in his book Firepower. Since the 1970s, Lacombe argues, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has used publications along with national, state, and local training programs to cultivate a shared group identity centered around gun ownership—an identity that in turn shapes members’ stances on many other political issues and affiliations. We use similar data and methods to track waning union impacts, documenting links between formal organizational features and locally embedded ties and identities. Looking across organizational spheres, we show that, even though membership in most older types of Rust Belt social associations have declined along with union locals over the past fifty years, one type—gun clubs—have kept going. In fact, gun clubs have proliferated and often expanded their offerings to become places for people to gather socially in many communities. We go beyond Lacombe’s focus on the national role of the NRA to look more closely at the local implications of gun club membership and NRA affiliation. As we will show empirically, gun clubs in western Pennsylvania host bingo nights, holiday parties, and social activities, just as many unions used to. As such, workers today are more likely to interact with peers at gun clubs than at the union hall, providing a much different political backdrop to worker social networks.


Having introduced our analytical perspective, we move on to explain why this book focuses especially on western Pennsylvania and then indicate the multiple strands of evidence we have collected and woven together to make sense of union and political changes in this storied Rust Belt region. In the final pages of this chapter, we preview the game plan for the rest of the book, the sequence by which we will lay out findings and arguments in the chapters to come.

A Focus on Western Pennsylvania

This book draws from the previous findings and ideas of many researchers, but our new evidence is mainly about one of America’s most fabled twentieth-century industrial regions— the twenty-county area of western Pennsylvania stretching from Erie to Pittsburgh and Johnstown to Aliquippa, where steel manufacturing and associated industries were once king.

This huge region serves as our diagnostic laboratory for trends that characterize many other eastern and midwestern Rust Belt regions populated primarily by whites, a place to trace in detail the impact of declining ground-level union presence for workers’ social identities, community ties, and political loyalties.

In western Pennsylvania, unions have declined along various important dimensions. Shrinkage in the region’s unionized share of the overall private-sector working population mirrors the nationwide contraction from 35 percent in 1955 to 6 percent by 2021. Nevertheless, western Pennsylvania still has some unionized areas and plants—which is important for our project because it allows us to examine union changes, not just union disappearance. Even as we discuss the consequences of overall loss of union memberships and resources, we are able to track specifically how industrial unions in mills, mines, and plants used to be more deeply involved in workers’ lives than they are today.

Democrats, not just unions, have also lost huge ground in the western Pennsylvania region, allowing us to dissect relation- ships between changing union ties and activities and declines in Democratic vote shares. Whereas Democrats used to be competitive in more than ten of these counties—even through the mid-1980s—Republican margins have skyrocketed since the early 2000s. In the past four presidential elections, Democrats have been competitive only in two of these twenty counties— Erie County, home to that city, and Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh.

As for the unions themselves, we focus most closely on the United Steelworkers, but we also look at other industrial unions, including the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE); the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA); the United Auto Workers (UAW); and  various  unions  in  the building trades, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers (which we refer to as the Insulators). In various places, we zero in on contrasts between USW, an industrial union, and IBEW, a building trades union. This juxtaposition is important for our contextual and organizational approach because there are telling differences in the institutional configurations of these two important international unions, differences that we show matter for their changing involvement with their worker members. Just as we argue that “union decline” and con- sequences for party politics are not only a single overarching story about national and regional formal organizational resources, we are also able to use comparisons between Steelworkers* and Electrical Workers to show consequential variations in the timing and nature of political shifts corresponding to the specific ways these unions relate to workers individually and in their workplaces and home communities. Not all unions have evolved in the same ways, and, in the future, remaining or new unions can develop alternative organizational tactics, possibly with different political consequences. Trends among the Electrical Workers and their union help us nail down some partial exceptions to the general rules we posit about the social underpinnings of union decline.

The building trades are very different from industrial unions, as we were told by many interviewees. “I think the industrial unions are sort of closer to the service unions in a sense,” one retired IBEW member commented. “I don’t know if they see that though, but I think we [in the building trades] would consider the industrial unions and the service unions more aligned than us and the industrial workers.” The building trades, which organize workers by craft, are those unions that represent workers in commercial, industrial, and residential construction, including electrical workers, bricklayers, insulators, painters, plumbers, and others. In contrast, industrial unions organize workers across industry, often in a common workplace. Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute (LII) defines industrial unionism as “a form of union organizing which organizes all of the workers in a particular industry into the same union without regard for the skill or trade of each worker.” For example, everyone employed at a certain steel mill, regardless of what job they do within the mill, would be a United Steelworker if the plant was represented by USW. In the chapters to come, we lay out the implications of the differences between the building trades and industrial unions more thoroughly.

As we spell out a more complete story than other observers have offered about the roots, modalities, and results of union decline in western Pennsylvania, we believe the basics of our account and explanatory hypotheses apply to other regions as well, so here and there we refer to other Rust Belt areas as appropriate. Everywhere we look, shifts in industrial and ex-industrial regions are about more than the decline of industry jobs or union organizational resources and the upshot for Democrats. The most basic story is about identity changes that have hit once locally embedded union clusters, like those nurtured by USW, harder than they have hit more loosely knit building trades like IBEW. In the once mighty USW redoubts of western Pennsylvania, the foundations have withered as much as the organizational heights. As union halls closed and membership numbers dwindled, other networks and community group influences, often propelling more conservative values and messages, have become more central to the daily lives of workers and residents. Shifts in political loyalties and votes have been part and parcel of these pervasive reworkings of the webs of everyday life.

Lainey Newman is a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School. She is a graduate of Harvard College and a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Her many books include The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (with Vanessa Williamson); Upending American Politics (coedited with Caroline Tervo); and Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life.