Reagan and Unions: Setting the Record Straight

While union leaders and agitators repeatedly push the narrative that Ronald Reagan hated unions, and that union members hated Reagan, reality tells a far different story.

During a campaign speech in Liberty, New Jersey on Labor Day 1980, Reagan -- a former union president of the Screen Actors Guild -- praised free unions and collective bargaining in the context of Polish workers under Lech Walesa's leadership:

They remind us that where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost. They remind us that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. You and I must protect and preserve freedom here or it will not be passed on to our children and it would disappear everywhere in the world. Today the workers in Poland are showing a new generation how high is the price of freedom but also how much it is worth that price.

Less than a month after firing the air-traffic controllers (the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union; PATCO), Reagan was speaking at a trade union gathering in Chicago during September 1981:

Collective bargaining in the years since has played a major role in America’s economic miracle. Unions represent some of the freest institutions in this land. There are few finer examples of participatory democracy to be found anywhere. Too often, discussion about the labor movement concentrates on disputes, corruption, and strikes. But while these things are headlines, there are thousands of good agreements reached and put into practice every year without a hitch.

In subsequent revisionist history, the Daily Kos claims that “[m]ost politically astute and knowledgeable people remember that it was President Ronald Reagan who began the assault on our unions ... Since Reagan took on PATCO, unions have seen their membership number decline precipitously.”

Actually, if we look at the data for union membership rates over time, one could argue that the rate of decline in union membership was slowing under Reagan’s terms.

The union membership rate peaked in 1954, and has been declining ever since. Reagan’s presidency had no significant impact on the rate of decline that had been taking place since the mid-1950s. In fact, if you look closely at the graph, you will see that the rate was starting to decline rapidly from 1979 to the start of 1981, after which the decline progressively slowed during Reagan’s terms -- with the slowing continuing through George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

From 1981 to 1993 under the two GOP presidents, the slowing pace of decline in the U.S. union membership rate suggested that the membership rate would stabilize at about 13 percent. However, the rate of decline then accelerated again during Democratic president Bill Clinton’s two terms. Want to blame a president for the continuing decline in union membership over the past few decades? Blame Clinton. He presided over a “restart” in declining union rolls that had been effectively quenched under Reagan and Bush 41, after the initial decline had begun under Jimmy Carter, not Reagan.

Proof that most union households were not deeply troubled at Reagan’s first term is evident in looking at the 1984 election results. In 1980, 45 percent of voters from union households cast their ballots for Reagan (compared to just 38 percent for Ford in 1976). In 1984, that share increased to 46 percent. In other words, Reagan’s re-election vote share from union households was larger than before the PATCO affair. Bush 41 held the union household vote share effectively constant (within sampling error) at 43 percent in 1988.

And then the GOP made its fatal mistake -- free trade with underdeveloped nations became the party religion (aka, NAFTA and the post-NAFTA period). In 1992, the share of the union household vote for Bush 41 was just 24 percent. Ross Perot took 21 percent of the total union vote. Adding these two numbers together arrives at 45 percent -- the share of the union household vote that the GOP had consistently held during the three prior elections. This is what helped cost the GOP the 1992 election. Effectively half of their traditional union support base -- which strongly opposes free trade with far less wealthy nations -- that Reagan built and maintained walked away from the party and voted for Perot.

In recent years, there has been a modest recovery of these lost voters. Since 2000, about 39 percent -- the same percentage as the pre-Reagan period -- of union households have been voting for the GOP presidential candidate, but it is still not up to the Reagan benchmark obtained during his initial election, and especially during his re-election.