An assessment of the relationship between the executive and labor unions since 2000.

Author: Dominic Palumbo

July 31, 2019. (Credit Image: © Jim West/ZUMA Wire)


For years the clout and financial power of unions made them a coveted ally, crucial to executive campaign success. How Presidents have approached economic policy has greatly impacted union support for them in subsequent elections. We set out to analyse how labor unions interacted with presidential candidates in the past two decades, specifically through financial means.

Our research approach was two fold, with the intention of bringing our findings together in a final analysis. We started by breaking down both union membership numbers and union political spending to assess the decline of labor unions in the past two decades and their resulting political response. As far as political response is measured, we intend to reflect that through their financial support records. In order to relate the numbers to the executive we focused exclusively on analyzing data from Presidential election years.  The significance of this research is to find out if labor unions have been directly affected by modern, executive sponsored economic policies, and if they’re losing political influence as a result.

Policy Review & Reaction

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Starting in 2001, the Bush Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act was a top down tax cut that began the new millenia’s trend of income inequality, and expanded the divide between corporations and unions according to an article from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Two years later, the Bush administration passed the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, which compounded the issues from the first Bush tax act. Under these new tax codes, union membership in manufacturing dropped 3.3% by 2008. Aside from the tax cuts, the Bush administration’s arguably most controversial piece of labor legislation was the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act reclassified what workers would be eligible for overtime, taking overtime benefits away from as many as 6 million Americans. 

The result of the Bush administration’s economic plan on unions was an increased loss in membership and a suffering economy that crippled many industries who relied on union workers, a 3.5% drop in manufactuing and 4.5% in construction during his administration. Unions responded by further increasing their spending on Democratic candidates, specifically Barack Obama. Under President Obama’s administration, three executive orders were signed that directly benefited unions. EO 13201: Notification of Employee Rights under Federal Labor Laws, EO 13204: Nondisplacement of Qualified Workers under Service Contracts, and EO: Economy in Government Contracting, each one individually insuring separate protections for various aspects of union membership and function. Under Obama however, union membership continued to decline, but their total political spending numbers began steadily increasing, continuing to trend overwhelmingly in favor of the democrats. 

Unions spent upwards of 230 million dollars during the 2016 election cycle advocating for the continuation of pro union policies, unfortunately the worst case scenario for them took place and President Trump took office. Since the Trump presidency began his administration has taken part in an unprecedented attempt to break unions. Trump promised to veto the PRO Act and Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act as well as packing the NLRB with anti-union appointees. He has also appointed countless anti-union judges in circuit courts, decreased the total number of OSHA inspectors and changed federal rules pertaining to overtime pay. Arguably the most heinous of all, President Trump has supported federal right to work legislation that limits union security agreements and overwhelmingly weakens union power. A significant note when looking at the Trump presidency is the electoral support that union members granted him, which were the highest numbers for a Republican since Reagan and the highest in the 21st century. 

When looking at the 2020 election cycle, the outcomes are squaring up to be very different from 2016 when looking at electoral support from union households. While the vote totals are still being processed, early data shows that union support was well in favor of Joe Biden. Almost every major labor union had come out in support of Biden during the campaign, including the AFL-CIO. Joe Biden ran on a platform of being a labor Democrat, Biden came forward with a plan that would bolster union power and crack down on corporate corruption, paired with the endorsements Biden was set to be the dominant representation that unions have been looking for. 

Findings & Figures

Figure 1

Figure 1 is a display of the trend in overall union membership in the United States. The data used was taken from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and represents the national average in percentage of the workforce active in major labor unions. The total decline is noticeable, but in specific industries like manufacturing and construction the decline is significantly more severe.

Declining union membership has been a consistent trend since the early 1980’s. The concerning part about dwindling union numbers are the broader implications that they hold for the US economy and more importantly the US worker. Unions insure safe and fair working conditions, as well as play a large role in fighting for the adjustment of wages with inflation and cost of living increases. A union’s strength is directly proportional to its membership numbers, and trend lines like the one above are concerning because they indicate that unions are losing their ability to effectively serve their purpose. Support from the executive branch can directly influence union strength, and union contributions and votes can majorly impact election results. A healthy relationship between future executive administrations and labor unions is the first step in beginning to rebuild the union stronghold in the US economy.

Figure 2

Figure 2 is a representation of total union political spending during the Presidential election cycles. It is notable that unions more than doubled their spending totals by the end of the Obama administration. This can be attributed to the good relationship that President Obama fostered with major labor unions during his presidency, and in 2016 the inherent threat that a Trump presidency would pose to union progress.

Political spending is a reflection of a unions political voice. Increases in spending indicate the need for a larger scale role to be played by the government in insuring that their needs are met. As indicated above, unions are steadily losing membership, and trends indicate that the current rate of loss will not be sustainable for another two decades. The massive spending increase is a visualization of a call for federal intervention on behalf of labor unions. Strong pro union executive leadership can spearhead the effort to rebuild, or at the very least mitigate the rate of loss.

Figure 3

Figure 3 is a breakdown of the percentage of contributions made by unions on a partisan basis. This ties into the executive relationship given that, on average, more than half of the total contributions are used on the presidential races. This serves as a visual representation of the good favor developed between Democratic Presidents and unions.


The relationship between the Presidency and labor unions is an interesting one. There is no doubt that executive economic policy relates to union sponsorship. The decline in union membership can be attributed to several factors but mainly the partisan nature of US politics causing labor stagnation and the economy’s failure to fully recover to a post-war labor market. Unions have donated to candidates and presidents who have supported their needs, those of which are overwhelmingly democrats. Electorally union households trend democratic. But in the past twenty years the exception has been the 2016 election of Trump, where union votes were nearly split. Labour unions have historically been more supportive of Democratic candidates rather than Republican candidates as conservatives tend to be anti-union and pro-union busting but as shown union spending on the Democratic party is  trending downwards, perhaps because of the growing distrust of the government and especially the Democratic party and “career politicians”. The relationship between spending and membership decline is attributed to the unions collective desperation in order to save their hold in the market.


Robert Baldwin, The Decline of US Labor Unions and the Role of Trade, June 2003, Pages 7-9. 

David Wessel, Why are Unions so Focused on Fighting Trade Deals?, June 2015, Brookings Institute.

Emily Horton, The Legacy of the 2001 and 2003 “Bush” Tax Cuts, October 2017, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Daniel Doyle, Labor Relations Under the Bush Administration, 2010, Inquiries Journal.

Scott Osborne & Philip Rosen, President Obama Issues Trio of Pro-Union Executive Orders; Significant Impact on Federal Contractors, February 2009, Jackson Lewis Publications., Labor Special Interest Spending Reports.

Communication Workers of America, Trump’s Anti-Worker Record. November 2020.

Jake Rosenfeld & Patrick Denise, The Union Household Vote Revisited, April 2017, OnLabor., /empowerworkers/.