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How the decline of unions turned Western Pennsylvania from a Democratic standby to a GOP stronghold

Workers holding signs picket in front of the White House.
Dennis Cook
Steelworkers from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania picket in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., Dec. 1, 1977. The group was demonstrating against imported steel.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

If I told you that a book published this fall explores the reason Democrats have struggled to hold onto working-class voters, your first response might be, “I already read Salena Zito and those New York Times stories filed from diners. What more do you want from me?”

After all, probably no demographic has received more attention during the Trump Era than the disaffected working class — no matter how long the rest of us linger over our coffee, hoping we’ll get a Times mention too.

But “Rust Belt Union Blues: Why working-class voters are turning away from the Democratic Party” looks to explore new ground by studying how one trend — deunionization — helped transform the political landscape in Western Pennsylvania. And it argues that Donald Trump’s rise and continued persistence stem in no small part from the fact that “political choices [are] driven in large part by social identity” rather than economics.

And unions don’t shape that identity as they once did.

The book covers familiar turf for co-author Lainey Newman, a Harvard Law student and Squirrel Hill native who cherishes her family’s ancestral ties to the union movement. While volunteering for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, she said, “I went out to Westmoreland County to do some campaigning, and I remember seeing Westmoreland County turn red.”

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That change has been decades in the making, and it took place across a swath of Western Pennsylvania. It prompted Newman to write her senior thesis about the role of unions in that change. Her research included a slew of interviews with union members and leaders, as well as deep dives into union newsletter archives and a working partnership with co-author and Harvard professor Theda Skocpol.

Newman said the lesson she learned is “an understanding of where the union identity went because that used to ground a sense of self for a lot of people.”

Often when the political salience of unions gets discussed — at least by people who use phrases like “political salience” — the focus is on who leaders endorse, and how much money they contribute to candidates.

But among union members, Newman said, “People were not getting the political messages from their leadership so much as they were getting them from each other.”

A union didn’t just help secure your health benefits: It helped secure a place for you in the community. (While union leaders often resisted efforts to integrate racially or include women, Skocpol and Newman argue many unions did so quicker than other parts of society.) The union hall wasn’t just the place where you talked about contracts. It was where you got married … and perhaps the place you went to knock down a few beers with friends before heading home. It was what sociologists call a “third place” — a site for social interactions that are informal but can form powerful bonds.

And even for workers who were conservative by inclination, the union could be a counterweight. Part of how it affirmed members’ social role, after all, was by opposing the corporate executives who could undermine their community — and in Western Pennsylvania eventually did.

Once that happened in the 1980s, Skocpol and Newman write, the social vacuum was filled by more conservative social organizations — including gun clubs.

Frequently affiliated with the National Rifle Association, the clubs don’t just offer range time, Newman said.

“They’re important community institutions and gathering places,” she said. “And it matters that people are getting together in environments that have this affiliation with the NRA and the Republican movement.”

As with unions, people underestimate the social power such institutions have, Skocpol says.

“People assume the NRA is a bunch of money that’s put behind ads during elections, which it most certainly is,” she said. But it also creates “certain kinds of moral outlooks that are really important to men who have experienced profound changes in their sense of what a man is.”

Gun-education courses and other activities “teach men to be citizen protectors. And that primes them to hear right-wing political messages.”

Notably, Skocpol and Newman say that building trades have maintained much of their cohesion, even as other unions faltered. The researchers ascribe that to a couple of factors: Trade members travel from job site to job site, so they are less likely to see their way of life wiped out when an employer shuts down. But the workers and their movement are held together by a shared set of skills, often acquired through the union’s own training facilities and apprenticeships.

And unlike other unions who’ve sought to make up lost numbers by organizing workers in new industries, the building trades have been less likely to blur their identity by seeking members outside their area of expertise.

On the other hand, building trades often skew more conservative than other labor groups. Sara Innamorato’s bid for Allegheny County executive was opposed by a number of powerful building trade unions, for example, though there were exceptions such as IBEW #5, an electrical-workers local whose political engagement model is cited approvingly in "Union Blues."

So how can Democrats regain lost ground? For starters, Skocpol said “people who study unions study them way too generally.” Talking about “labor” as a monolith obscures the differences between, say, sunburned iron workers and unionized but still noodle-armed public radio employees.

And if Democrats want to rebuild their brand with workers, she said, “I don’t think you create the networks top-down.” While she credits President Joe Biden for extensive outreach to union members, she said a grassroots approach would involve “joining lateral networks over time,” finding connections and “joining the conversation in ways that enable people … to influence one another.” Over time, she predicts, that will work better than blanketing a community with ads or canvassers weeks before an election.

“We have this sort of understanding that cities are blue and everywhere else is red,” said Newman. “But these things have shifted in Pennsylvania over time.”

And they could do so again.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.