From Union Halls to City Hall: How Unions Create Middle Class Public Leaders

Labor unions are known to improve wages and benefits for their members. Yet economic results are not all that unions accomplish. They also make a difference in democratic politics by lobbying for policies, by providing money and volunteers in elections – and also by fostering leadership skills among their members and helping some win elected public offices.
The role of unions in helping members win elected office has not received as much scholarly attention as the other economic and political functions unions perform. In part that is because this function is not easy to study in a rigorous, empirical manner. I have devised a new way to test the hypothesis that unions foster elected officials – and my findings open the door for further explorations of how union membership facilitates electoral careers – and why this matters. 
How Unions Can Generate Elected Officials
The idea that occupational associations can encourage members to run successfully for elected office strikes most people as obvious for elites. No one is surprised that the American Medical Association promotes leadership among physicians – some of whom end up winning elected office. That Chambers of Commerce and Bar Associations generate business leaders and lawyers who run for office is even less surprising. Yet very similar processes can play out for members of unions as well. Just as business and professional associations help members run for office, unions offer similar support to working- and middle-class Americans. Union members are able to climb ladders that carry them, rung by rung, from union activities to public service.
Aaron J. Sojourner is Assistant Professor of Work and Organizations at the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota.