Workers of the U.S., Disunite? Studying Anti-Union Rhetoric and Its Effects on Public Support for Organized Labor

Author: John V. Kane, 2017


“During times of widespread economic hardship, it is not uncommon to observe public vilification and scapegoating of particular societal groups…”


John V. Kane is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Center for Global Affairs.

The full article can be found in the British Journal of Political Science here.

Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.


During times of widespread economic hardship, it is not uncommon to observe public vilification and scapegoating of particular societal groups.   Immigrants and individuals who depend upon government assistance, for example, are often on the receiving end of such vitriol. But another, perhaps somewhat overlooked, group is that of organized labor.

Certainly, labor unions have long attracted criticism for associations with organized crime, spurring inflation, and/or creating inconveniences for consumers (e.g., by going on strike). Yet, in recent years, we also witness much public derision of union members themselves and, specifically, the amount of compensation these individuals receive compared to the compensation of “regular” (i.e., non-union) workers. This practice of making class-based distinctions between union and non-union workers is a particularly novel manifestation of anti-union rhetoric, and is politically interesting given the long history of solidarity between unions and working people in the United States. But is it actually effective? That is, can such “class-based anti-union rhetoric”, or CAR, actually reduce public support for labor unions?

In an article in the British Journal of Political Science (available now via FirstView), entitled, “Organized Labor as the New Undeserving Rich? Mass Media, Class-Based Anti-Union Rhetoric, and Public Support for Unions in the United States,” my coauthor (Benjamin J. Newman, UC Riverside) and I investigated exactly this question by fielding a series of carefully constructed survey experiments on over 2,000 respondents. The basic design of each experiment involved providing respondents with a (fabricated) news story containing information about an upcoming strike by a prominent labor union. Some of these respondents (i.e., those not in the “control” condition) were then provided with additional information expressing explicit opposition to the strike. But because we were uniquely concerned with the effects of CAR specifically, respondents not in the control condition were assigned to either an “opposition condition” (which was anti-union, but did not feature CAR) or a “CAR condition” (which was anti-union and did feature CAR). This strategy enabled us to isolate the unique effects of CAR vis-à-vis those of anti-rhetoric alone. Importantly, we relied heavily upon real-world newspaper and magazine articles to serve as source material for the information we presented to respondents.

After participants in our studies were exposed to the information they were (randomly) assigned to read, they were asked a series of questions about the extent to which they believed union workers were similar to themselves, as well as the extent to which they believed union workers to be deserving of public support.   Finally, respondents were asked to indicate their support for specific public policies that strengthen unions (e.g., laws that give workers the right to form and join unions in their workplace).

We predicted that, compared to observing anti-union rhetoric alone, observing CAR would result in significantly lower support for union workers, whether in terms of perceived similarity or perceived deservingness of public support. Moreover, we predicted that, by exerting such effects, CAR would also indirectly reduce public support for laws that strengthen the political and legal power of unions. Indeed, across our four experiments—which involved three different labor unions, each situated within a distinct sector of the economy—our empirical findings overwhelmingly supported these predictions.

We theorized that these effects should occur because CAR, by emphasizing stark differences in compensation, effectively depicts union members as being others—that is, socioeconomically different from regular working people. While the aforementioned empirical findings were consistent with this theory, we sought to dig deeper and examine whether this was, in fact, the mechanism at work. Specifically, we drew upon research in political psychology to also measure respondents’ sense of “worker identity.” Individuals with high values of “worker identity” can be said to place a great deal of personal importance upon being a working person. As we state in the article:

One method for determining whether class rhetoric…is doing the ‘work’ of the CAR treatment is to assess whether the effect of the CAR treatment is conditional upon the extent to which respondents identify as a ‘working person’. If our theory is correct, those most susceptible to the putative ‘otherizing’ effects of CAR toward union workers will be respondents who identify strongly as a working person.


This latter set of analyses proved to be especially illuminating. Whereas, in the control and opposition conditions, worker identity tended to be positively related to support for unions, this relationship was often either nullified or reversed in the CAR condition. Such results indicate that non-union working-class individuals, while generally in political solidarity with union workers, may be particularly susceptible to rhetoric that depicts union members as overpaid and unwilling to work unless they receive even greater compensation.   Workers, in other words, may only identify with and support union workers when they perceive the latter to be in the same economic “boat,” so to speak. Class-based anti-union rhetoric, it would seem, is capable of dramatically altering that perception.

Both in its research design and in identifying CAR as a unique, topical phenomenon, we believe the article meaningfully advances the scholarly literature on anti-union rhetoric in the United States. Nevertheless, as we note in the article, we are confident that much room exists for future research. Namely, we believe that such socio-economic cues can be used in rhetoric directed against other prominent groups as well (e.g., racial and ethnic groups), not just labor unions. Also, our study in no way means to imply that the phenomenon of CAR exists only in the United States—indeed, we cite specific examples of CAR being used in mass media in several other countries. Finally, insofar as such rhetoric can potentially be employed as a “divide and conquer” strategy against groups that, under normal circumstances, coexist in political alignment, we sincerely hope that our article might serve as a useful starting point for researchers interested in studying media, rhetoric, and group politics.

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