One of the biggest surprises on election night occurred as Americans watched Democratic strongholds in the Rust Belt turn red. A few in particular—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio—were especially shocking. These states—once thriving manufacturing centers with powerful labor unions—had voted for Democratic presidents for decades. This election, they chose Trump.
It’s no coincidence that these states, with their large percentages of blue-collar workers, were also the backdrop for contentious, Republican-led battles to weaken labor unions, battles that the labor movement ultimately lost in Michigan in Wisconsin. In recent years, Republican governors in both Wisconsin and Michigan signed controversial right-to-work laws, which allow many blue-collar workers to opt out of joining unions and paying dues, while still reaping the benefits of collective bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions. This means that unions wind up with less less money and thus wield less influence to get out the vote for Democrats, the party with which they’ve long been allies.
In Michigan, home to the influential United Auto Workers, Republican Governor Rick Snyder passed one such law in 2012 amid mass protests. In the first year after the law went into effect, union membership in the state fell by 11 percent (though it has inched up a bit since then). In 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed the same type of law through with similar results. “Republicans knew this would decimate unions, and now we can see the impact,” says Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island.