Aaron Sojourner

The Underappreciated Societal Role of Unions

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Assistant Professor Aaron Sojourner examines how labor unions help develop members' leadership skills and entry into politics and policy.

The role of unions in society and politics has long generated controversy. While some view unions as representing the political interests of working families broadly, others view them as just a special interest advocating for a narrow slice of society at the expense of the rest. As these debates catch fire in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, and elsewhere, Carlson School Assistant Professor Aaron Sojourner offers a fresh look at a role unions play.

In particular, his research examined how labor unions help develop members' leadership skills and help them rise to elected office in the broader community, a role largely ignored by the academic literature. The research was spurred by Sojourner's early career experiences as a union organizer.

"I saw workers become community leaders and get involved in politics and policy," he says. "Doctors get active and become leaders through the American Medical Association, lawyers have local and state Bars, and business people have Chambers of Commerce. Unions offer similar support for working- and middle-class people to get involved in politics."

Sojourner tested that theory through painstaking research that involved gathering occupational history on every state legislator in the United States and calculating state unionization rates for four well-defined occupations: K-12 teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and construction workers. His key findings confirmed his hypothesis: "In states where a particular occupation is highly unionized, people with that occupational background make up a bigger share of the state's legislature," he explains.

"This calls attention to an under-appreciated role that unions play," he adds. "They are schools for democracy and leadership. For example, a carpenter might not give much time to politics, but that can change when someone explains why it's important that a particular policy gets enacted. Some members get more involved and even run for public office. The union is the catalyst for that rise to leadership."

"Do Unions Promote Electoral Office-Holding? Evidence from Correlates of State Legislatures' Occupational Shares," Sojourner, A., Industrial and Labor Relations Review, (in press)