Do Unions Punish Democrats? Free-Trade Votes and Labor PAC Contributions, 1999–2012

Date01 June 2018
AuthorMichele M. Hoyman,Joshua M. Jansa
Published date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18yIs7Yq12ZcXJ/input 738575PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917738575Political Research QuarterlyJansa and Hoyman
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 424 –439
Do Unions Punish Democrats?
© 2017 University of Utah
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Free-Trade Votes and Labor PAC
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917738575
Contributions, 1999–2012
Joshua M. Jansa1 and Michele M. Hoyman2
This article examines whether labor unions punish incumbent Democrats who vote for free-trade bills in Congress.
We theorize that punishment is a risky strategy for interest groups that prefer one party over the other. Therefore,
interest groups must be substantially affected by decline in party support to punish. Consistent with our theory, we
find important differences between public- and private-sector unions in their willingness to punish. Although public-
sector unions articulate opposition to free trade, they do not follow through with either deterrence (withholding
contributions to send a signal) or incapacitation (withholding contributions to replace the wayward candidate with a
more supportive one). Private-sector unions, specifically unions that organize trade-vulnerable industrial workers, do
attempt to punish Democrats via deterrence. The estimated deterrence effect is a 6 percent reduction in contributions.
This study improves on previous studies by modeling punishment across several congressional sessions and multiple
trade votes. The results reveal new insights into labor’s approach to declining protectionism among congressional
campaign contributions, interest groups, labor unions, political parties, punishment, trade policy
Do labor unions attempt to punish incumbent Democrats
deterrence, which is the withholding of campaign contri-
who vote for free trade? If so, how do unions punish
butions to signal displeasure, or (2) by incapacitation,
them and why do they choose to do so? Such questions
which is the withholding of substantial campaign contri-
sit at the nexus of scholarship on interest group cam-
butions from electorally vulnerable legislators to replace
paign strategies (Ansolabehere, Snyder, and Tripathi
them. Extant studies of interest group punishment strate-
2002; Brunell 2005; Herndon 1982; McKay 2010;
gies find that labor unions do indeed withhold contribu-
Rudolph 1999) and the influence of organized labor in
tions from pro-free-trade Democrats as part of a deterrence
American politics (Burns, Francia, and Herrnson 2000;
punishment strategy (Engel and Jackson 1998; Jackson
Francia 2006; Masters and Delaney 1985, 1987; Scoble
and Engel 2003).
1963; Sousa 1993). Labor can be thought of as a “cap-
However, previous studies are limited because they do
tured” interest group because their loyalty to Democratic
not consider the risks associated with punishment. Our
candidates over Republicans means that their support
study amends punishment theory to reflect the riskiness
can be taken for granted by the Democratic Party.
of the strategy. We do so by incorporating Hirschman’s
Punishing Democrats who defect from supporting labor
(1970) exit, voice, and loyalty framework. Interest groups
policy positions, though, could amplify labor’s voice
that are angered, but not threatened, by decline in support
within the party without exiting to the other party. This
from their preferred party on a particular policy are more
may be an especially attractive tactic for organized
likely to exercise “loyalty” or do nothing in the short run.
labor, given its decades-long decline in influence
within the Democratic Party and in American politics
1Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, USA
(Francia 2006; Witko 2014).
2The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
Punishment is a risky strategy for interest groups,
which prefer one party over the other but are not satisfied
Corresponding Author:
Joshua M. Jansa, Department of Political Science, Oklahoma State
with their preferred party’s record on a given issue.
University, 233 Murray Hall, Stillwater, OK 74078-1060, USA.
Punishment can be exercised in one of two ways: (1) by

Jansa and Hoyman
As the threat to the group’s membership increases, it is
In contrast, interest groups pursuing an electoral strategy
more likely to “voice” displeasure through punishment
tend to give more to the preferred party regardless of
majority status, dedicate substantial resources to open-
We test this theory, like existing studies, in the context
seat races, and give more to preferred party incumbents
of labor union punishment of Democrats over free-trade
facing close reelection races (Brunell 2005; Rudolph
votes (Engel and Jackson 1998; Jackson and Engel
1999). Use of an electoral strategy is likely when the
2003). We improve on existing empirical analyses by (1)
interest group strongly favors one party over the other
disaggregating labor unions into meaningful subcatego-
and prefers political action committee (PAC) spending
ries; (2) testing the theory on all important trade votes
over lobbying (McKay 2010). Interest groups pursuing
from 1999 to 2012, instead of focusing on unusually
an electoral strategy invest in legislators with whom they
high-profile trade votes; and (3) fully testing for the
share values and trust (Jackson and Engel 2003) and help
incapacitation punishment strategy. We argue that not all
those legislators gain a majority (Rudolph 1999).
unions behave the same because they approach the risks
Groups following an electoral strategy may augment
associated with the “voice” option differently based on
the strategy by rewarding loyalty and punishing defection
their industry’s sensitivity to job losses caused by trade.
on key votes. Punishment can be pursued with two differ-
We posit there will be differences in the use of punish-
ent goals in mind. One goal is incapacitation, or replacing
ment between public-sector unions and private-sector
the disloyal incumbent with a presumably loyal one
unions, as well as between nonservice and service
(Engel and Jackson 1998; Jackson and Engel 2003).
unions in the private sector. Although unions are united
Another goal is deterrence, or signaling disapproval to
in taking antitrade policy positions, not all unions are
prevent future defections by the candidate (Engel and
willing to back their positions with punishment. Treating
Jackson 1998; Jackson and Engel 2003). These strategies
labor as a single entity with all unions equally willing to
are both potentially effective ways of ensuring support in
bear the costs of punishment oversimplifies the consider-
Congress for preferred policy positions because legisla-
ations interest groups make when deciding whether or
tors are first and foremost concerned with reelection and
not to punish.
often “run scared” even if their seats are not really in
jeopardy (e.g., Fenno 1973).
Pursuing an Access or Electoral
Reward Your Friends, Punish Your
Enemies: Labor’s Electoral Strategy
Research has shown that there are two strategies interest
groups pursue when making campaign contributions.
Labor unions prefer an electoral strategy. This has largely
One is an access strategy, or using campaign contribu-
been so since 1898, when American Federation of Labor
tions as a means of gaining an audience with legislators
(AFL) President Samuel Gompers articulated the “reward
(Austen-Smith 1995; Gopoian 1984; Herndon 1982). The
your friends, punish your enemies” mandate as the guid-
second is an electoral strategy, or using campaign contri-
ing principle to describe labor’s relationship to elected
butions to help elect candidates who will represent the
officials. Since the New Deal, Democratic candidates
group’s policy positions (Brunell 2005; Gopoian 1984;
have been seen as friends and have received substantial
Rudolph 1999). The latter is a strategy to affect which
campaign support from labor unions (Dark 2003). In a
decision makers hold power rather than gain access to
typical election cycle, labor unions award about 90 per-
those already in power. Punishment is a modification to
cent of their campaign contributions to Democratic can-
the broader electoral strategy.
didates (Francia 2006) and provide many of the volunteers
Interest groups follow different patterns of giving
that help Democratic candidates with voter mobilization
depending on the strategy employed. Interest groups pur-
(Delaney, Masters, and Schwochau 1990; Masters and
suing an access strategy tend to give to incumbents on
Delaney 1987; Radcliff 2001).1 Labor also prefers mak-
both sides of the aisle, give more to incumbents than
ing campaign contributions to Democrats over direct lob-
challengers, give more to incumbents with agreeable pol-
bying efforts (Ansolabehere, Snyder, and Tripathi 2002).
icy positions, and give more to members of the majority
Labor unions decide which races to prioritize, tending to
party (Ansolabehere, Snyder, and Tripathi 2002; Brunell
give more to Democrats who vote with labor’s positions
2005; Rudolph 1999). Contributions are given strategi-
on key bills (Burns, Francia, and Herrnson 2000; Gopoian
cally; while contributions are usually not large enough to
1984), are running in close races (Burns, Francia, and
impact election outcomes, or...

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