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Mayday rally at the Sergels torg square, 2011, organized by the Stockholm Local Federation of the SAC and the Anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation Stockholm and attended by roughly 4,000 people (Altemark via Wikimedia Commons)

Deep Dive: Workers of the World … Vote?

A new paper looks at the relationship between Western Europe's social democratic parties and trade unions.

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: Altemark

How have the ideological and electoral changes that social democratic parties have undergone impacted the parties’ relationships with trade unions where personal ties are concerned? That is the question before Mario T. Taschwer, Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik, and Verena Reidinger in their new paper, “Social democracy transformed? Party change and union ties,” published this month in the Western European Politics journal. 

The relationship between union and party “goes beyond a purely instrumental logic. They share deep historical roots that continue to shape their relationship today,” the authors write. And working-class votes were the most important electoral constituency for social democratic parties from their founding.

Yet, the authors hypothesized that, as the parties become more economically centrist and relied less on working-class votes (which they assert has indeed happened over the past decades), the parties appoint fewer union-linked ministers — but that institutions that exist to stabilize party-union relations should “moderate these effects.”

Such appointments are but one potential link between parties and interest groups, and can, the authors write, function as “informal organizational ties at the individual level” in the absence of formal requirements or political mandates for such appointments.

The authors believe that their work deepens understanding of the relationship between parties and unions and makes clearer the importance of institutional contexts for party-union stability.

The authors considered ministerial appointments with three caveats: that they were sorting through data using the premise that these were political appointments as the appointers in their view generally remain firmly partisan; that “the party actors who appoint ministers typically need to balance multiple demands and concerns, including regional and factional representation”; and that the party parliamentary group is an important pipeline to appointments, meaning a significant union presence among party legislators might be worth noting, but cross-national data on legislators’ union membership doesn’t exist.

“No Direct Association”

Looking at data from 2,600 ministerial appointments in Western Europe in 16 different countries from 1960 to 2014, the authors found no direct changes between party ideology and trade unionist appointments.

As they write, “Between the 1960s and the 2010s, the proportion of social democratic ministers with trade union ties almost halved from 30 to 16%. Yet, despite a temporal coincidence of this trend with substantial electoral and ideological change, we find no direct association between trade unionist appointments and party ideology or party electorates.”

But where institutional stabilizers are weaker, electoral change was correlated with appointment patterns. The authors conclude that only when the institutional context does not favor the party-union relationship — that is, in the absence of stabilizers like union density — do such parties weaken ties to unions in response to the shift to the middle class.

The authors believe that their work deepens understanding of the relationship between parties and unions and makes clearer the importance of institutional contexts for party-union stability. They feel it also has implications “for understanding political elite recruitment and its (potential) effect on policy outputs.” 

Emily Tamkin

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