Role of labor in politics

Maybe you have never really thought about it, but every time you hear of a workers demonstration/strike, you may also hear of the term union. Think about the campus student union. For what reason is it in existence? The answer, to articulate and advance the interests of the students to the management of the campus. Just like the student union, there are also unions in the outside world concerned with addressing the issues affecting workers. These workers could be teachers, policemen or even factory workers. Ultimately, unions are very important entities.

The union is the umbrella body that workers belong to that exists for the purpose of addressing their interests. The role of unions has always been the representation of the interests of the members who form them. According to Colgan and Ledwith unions can be defined as self-governing organizations which are necessary for the individual social distinctiveness of their members as well as the group identity, cohesion and unity among the workers. (1) The fact that unions provide members and individuals something to identify with and because they articulate the interests of these members is what gives unions their legitimacy. However, when unions lack legitimacy (do not address member issues), they not only lose resources but their members as well. (Chaison and Bigelow 2-13)

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Unions are founded to represent both the interests of public and private sector employees.  However, it is worth noting that some of the most well-known unions are to be found in the public sector. These could be unions that represent, for instance teachers. (“Labor unions in the United States”)

Labor unions have been around since 1886 when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed. That said, labor union presence can be felt in different fields, from economics to politics. Primarily, the role of the labor unions has and is to fight for the equal and fair treatment of workers. Unions are in place to protect the interests of the workers from unscrupulous employers who want to pay less for the labor they make use of. In the United states for example, labor unions play such important roles as representation of member interests and the collective negotiation of member wages, work benefits and conditions.

Still, unions are also considered as important political features. While the membership of the unions in the 1950’s was much higher compared to the recent situation, unions still exert considerable influence in politics, more so political campaigns. Unions are crucial in as far as recruitment of supporters is concerned. Also, unions are indispensable in the formation of political coalitions. In the United states, unions are linked to one of the two main unions; that is, the Change to Win Federation and the AFL-CIO. These are considered to be the two main union bodies. They are involved in favorable policy and legislation promotion for their members who are workers within the United States. (“Labor unions in the United States”)

Unions as stated, are organized entities. They bring together people for some common end. For this reason it would be correct to argue that unions are necessary in politics. It is through such organized entities that for instance, change can and may be effected. Unions should be involved in political campaigns because the success and future of political campaigns lies in and with the people. (Stoller) That is to say, it is the ordinary people who are necessary for a potential political candidate to enter into office. Again, it is these same ordinary individuals who are the members of the unions. If the political candidates do not get the people on their side to support, it is obvious that they will lose the campaigns. Getting ordinary people on board a candidate’s political campaign would then require that the candidates also get the unions on board. Unions are organized entities meaning they are able to organize the ordinary folk/members into political coalitions that can help potential candidates win in the political campaigns.

Politics easily defined is who gets what, when and how. This brings into the fore the importance of unions in the political process more so in political campaigns. Through such activities as lobbying and endorsing, it would be correct to argue that the person who will most likely occupy a certain office will be chosen. Unions should be involved in politics to get their preferred candidate into office. This has important ramifications. Getting their preferred and chosen person in office would mean that the unions may have considerable influence especially in as far as policies are concerned. it would be correct to argue that a person helped into political office by certain union would advocate and advance policy issues that would be of interest to the union that helped him/her get into power.

Lobbying, advocacy, education of voters, public relations and endorsing are important ways through which unions are and should be involved in political campaigns. It is through these activities that a potential candidate gains his support and enters into some political office. During the lobbying and endorsing processes in political campaigns, unions can take different approaches. (Hunter et al 13)

Providing funds. The fact that unions are organized entities also means that they are more likely to have sufficient funds through which they can advance their interests. Think about it. Take the case of a union whose members contribute some 30 dollars every month as monthly fees. That makes it 360 every year. Say the union has roughly 5000 members. That translates to over one million dollars. Obviously, this would serve as a huge boost to any politician on campaign trail. It is these funds that can be used to support certain candidates whom they feel are likely to address their interests better if and when he gets into office after a campaign. Labor is involved in political campaigns and supports some candidates as opposed to others for certain practical and ideological reasons. (Stoller) In the 2000 US election campaign, unions spent a massive 900 million dollars. (Hunter et al 14) Money then is one of the most important campaign tools without which any potential candidate can lose out.

Support. Again think about it. It is the ordinary members who constitute unions. It is these people who again form the crowd and constitute volunteers in political campaigns. It would be correct to state that campaigns would not be campaigns without the presence of the mammoth crowds, the volunteers and most importantly, the money. These three are often present and indispensable during campaign periods. (“Direct political involvement”) That said, it would be safe to point out that unions are capable of providing the crowd numbers if and when needed. The crowd helps to drum up support for political candidates. Take the case of New Jersey and the Jon Corzine (now governor of New Jersey) campaign in 2006. New Jersey is often regarded as a unionized state, meaning there was lots of labor for use in the campaigns. As Jon Corzine was running for governor of New Jersey, he was wise enough to make use the use of the labor, groups of union members in his campaigns as his supporters. This worked to stir him on while at the same time demoralizing his rival Doug Forrester. This is because whenever they were needed, crowds provided by the labor were always on hand to cheer him on and not his antagonist. More recently, the teachers union openly endorsed and was in support of the Obama campaign such that they offered Obama campaign buttons to members. (Gonen) Their support was crucial to his win. A campaign can only be successful only if large numbers of people turn out to vote for and in support of their preferred candidate. Union involvement in this case can take the form of the voter mobilization, education and registration. (McIntosh) Moreover, the unions can provide guidelines into the reasons why they would advocate their members to support one candidate as opposed to another. Is it because, he/she understand the issues affecting the members of that particular union?

Resources. Other than hard cash that can be used for campaign purposes, unions also provide things like the public space in which political campaigns are conducted. This space takes the form of union halls where organization of the campaigns can take place. More over, the unions may also provide the staff for the campaigns. This involves the people who make and print campaign materials, to those who may be involved in making phone call asking people to support a certain candidate. (Stoller) Take the case of the Obama campaign, an organized group of people used their cell phones and their air time to call up people randomly to drum up support for him. These people could easily have been members/volunteers of a particular union. Their support succeeded in placing Obama in office. Other than telephone calls to potential voters. The unions can also provide staff who would be involved in canvassing. Canvassing involves the making of house calls to union members, finding out the issues most important to them in addition to informing them on the candidates that may be of significance to them as union members. The candidates that may make a difference. (McIntosh)

Unions can be considered to be crucial in as far as advocating for legislation that advances such necessary and important issues as health safety and even equality. (Stoller) Thus, labors primary legislative agenda can be advocacy for an increase into minimal wage for members, workers compensation and even healthcare. Generally, unions are concerned with the advocacy and support of the legislation that is keen on advancing worker interests. Concurrently, unions are also involved in opposing the legislation that may not seem to be in favor of the interests of the workers. This means that that unions fight for favorable legislation to be passed as laws while also pressuring for the amendment or scrapping of the not so favorable laws. (“Labors legislative agenda”)

Thus, unions should be involved in political campaigns providing not only the funds, but also the physical and human resources. This is the only way that the unions can be able to make the most of political influence that will result in gains for the workers who make up the members. While some members may not be in support of the fact that their unions are involved in politics because they do not like politics themselves, it is worth noting that member interests and issues can only be effectively addressed and/or protected if the unions are actively involved in politics. (McIntosh) Accordingly, the reason why some people would be in support of union involvement in political campaigns is because it would give them the chance to choose their employer and their work conditions. This is made possible by the fact that they help future decision makers get into power. In return, the decision makers may make policies and decisions in their favor. (McIntosh)

According to Credit Union National Association, union involvement in politics should not only be restricted to campaign periods rather it should be an ongoing activity. This is because this is the only way through which unions can be able to place themselves at the centre of political activity. Also, this can serve as a good way to be influential when the times call for it. It would be correct to state that continuous political involvement may offer unions the foothold they require with relative ease as opposed to just waiting for campaign periods. (“Direct political involvement”)

Since unions were established in the early 19th century, their main purpose has been the articulation of member interest both in the private and private sector. However, the unions that are well known can be found in the public arena addressing the issues and interests of such professionals as teachers or even factory workers. Mostly, unions are involved in the representation of member interests as well as collective bargaining for their salaries, wages and work conditions. So that unions can perform their duties well, it is crucial that they be involved in politics. This is important so that they can be able to influence policies in their favor by supporting the right candidates into office. Unions should be involved in political campaigns by way of providing the campaign funds, the physical and human resources. The two most important things that are crucial in the success of any campaign are money and the people (voters and volunteers). Unions are openly capable of providing the two. They are better placed at mobilizing both volunteers and voters for the simple fact that these voters and volunteers are their members. Through the provision of the monetary, physical and human resources in campaigns, unions are able to gain considerable influence in politics. More over, they can also take part in voter mobilization, education and registration. Through the combination of the funds and other resources, unions can then be able to place individuals sympathetic to their interests into the decision making positions. This way they can adequately address their primary legislative agendas. The primary legislative agenda for any union is the support of legislation that is keen on addressing and advancing workers interests such as wage increases and the provision of healthcare. Unions fight until such legislation is adopted as law for the benefit of their members. Thus, unions should be involved in political campaigns. It is the only way their issues and interests can be addressed and safeguarded. Getting the right person who is in favor of these interests is a step in the right direction.


Chaison, Gary and Bigelow, Barbara. Unions and legitimacy. 2002. London: ILR Press.

            Colgan, Fiona and Ledwith, Sue. Gender, diversity and trade unions: International perspectives.

2002. London: Routledge.

‘Direct political involvement’. Credit Union National Association. 2008. 10 Dec 2008


Gonen, Yoav. ‘Teachers get hit on the button’. New York Post. October 2 2008. 10 Dec 2008


Hunter, Robert, Kersey, Paul and Miller, Shawn. ‘The Michigan Union accountability Act: A

step toward accountability’. The Mackinac Centre Report. 2001. 10 Dec 2008 <>

‘Labor unions in the United States’. Nation 2005. 10 Dec 2008


Stoller, Matt. The role of labor in a political campaign. 2005. 10 Dec 2008


Labors legislative agenda: Review and preview. N.d. 10 Dec 2008


McIntosh, Don. ‘Organized labor aims to expand political influence’. North West Labor Press.

2002. 10 Dec 2008 <>

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