What does declining union membership mean for the 2020 U.S. election?

Support for unions is high and rising. Yet unionization rates in the United States continue to slide. Why?

David Moscrop, Ph.D., is a #FESFellow2020. This is his second piece in a series on social democracy and the U.S. elections.

Union membership has been in decline in the United States for decades. In 1979, the number of workers in a union hit roughly 21 million, an all-time high in America. Union density—the measure of the rate of unionized workers as a percentage of the workforce—peaked in 1954 at 35 percent. By the 1980s, union fortunes began to change. And fast. 

As Pew reports, “over the past 35 years, the share of American workers who belong to labor union has fallen by about half.” The 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Union Members Summary showed a cratering unionization rate of 11.6 percent (16.4 million workers). That’s low. Even worse, disaggregating membership reveals a stark divide between public and private sector density, with the former at 33.6 percent and the latter at a mere 6.2 percent. On balance, the United States has one of the lowest union density rates of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development

The ill fortunes of unions continue despite high levels of public support for them. A 2019 Gallup poll reported that union approval hit a “near 50-year high” with 64 percent of Americans approving of them, a number that has been trending up since 2016—and way up since 2008, when support fell to 48 percent. Growing approval for labor increased across the partisan divide over the last decade with similar boosts in approval from Democrats (+16 percent), Independents (+17 percent), and Republicans (+18 percent) between 2009 and 2019.

Support for unions is high and rising. Yet unionization rates in the United States continue to slide. Why?

 

Decades of decline

Steven Greenhouse, author of Beaten Down, Worked Up, who covered labor for the New York Times for three decades, attributes the decline to a handful of factors, including the decline of manufacturing jobs, the rise of the service sector, a move from managerial capitalism to financial capitalism focused on maximizing profits and minimizing costs, discriminatory practices and strategic errors within unions themselves, and the rise of a new corporate culture in the United States. 

That last reason stands out.

“Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, corporate America became much more anti-union,” Greenhouse says. “In the '40s, '50s, and '60s the corporate world was much more willing to work with unions and tolerate unions, but in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, corporate America became much more resistant to unions and fought much harder against unionization.”

Anti-union legislation, such as state-level right-to-work laws that allow workers to decline union membership in a unionized environment (and thus enable free-riding), has buttressed efforts to stall and reverse unionization. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that non-union public employees could decline to pay fees to unions for collective bargaining and other actions that would cover their employment—whether or not they joined the union. The ruling was divided 5-4 along partisan lines and supported by the Trump administration.

The long rise of anti-union power blocs in the private sector and government coincides with the transformation of the Republican Party and the right from broadly liberal in the 1950s to increasingly conservative, libertarian, and free-market doctrinaire in the 1970s and 1980s. That shift – led by, among others, William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater – not only further pitted Republicans and Democrats against one another, but set owners against workers, with the former adopting increasingly aggressive strategies and tactics to suppress existing unions and prevent further organizing—and finding political support from the GOP at state and federal levels.

 

"The decline in union density has made labor less capable of combating anti-union and Big Business backed politicians—which makes this whole thing a vicious cycle! ...Lower union density results in more anti-union politicians resulting in lower likelihood of passing better labor laws making it harder and harder to form unions!" - Mindy Isser

 

Mindy Isser, an organizer and writer in Philadelphia, understands how power compounds in this context, supporting anti-union forces and undermining labor. “The decline in union density has made labor less capable of combating anti-union and Big Business backed politicians—which makes this whole thing a vicious cycle!” she says. “It basically looks like this: Lower union density results in more anti-union politicians resulting in lower likelihood of passing better labor laws making it harder and harder to form unions!”

Jane McAlevey, a union organizer, scholar, and author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, emphasizes corporate reliance on anti-union strategists, citing “the extremes to which anti-union consulting firms are allowed to systematically violate the law” as an indication of the latitude that anti-union forces are given. “It’s really the union busters. It’s the kind of campaigns that they’re allowed to run, that I’ve experienced over and over and over with thousands of workers going up against them in campaigns.”

But McAlevey, who has been a union organizer and strategist for decades, also points a finger at union leadership. When explaining the decline of union density, scholars and observers sometimes omit poor union strategy as one of the reasons for failures.

According to McAlevey, union leadership has failed to capitalize on the fact, “that ordinary workers can be put into a really hard campaign, and if we enable them, and trust them, and teach them what the union busters are going to do, and then act in a fully transparent and totally democratic way, with highly skilled organizers, then workers can learn to overcome [the union busters],” she says.

Ultimately, McAlevey’s approach to union organizing is founded on deep democracy and capacity building “The who trained me as an organizer come from a tradition in the United States that presupposes that the purpose of the union is to radically empower workers to make bold improvements in their lives…It’s not just about bread and butter issues.”

 

"Organizing is not simply a means to higher wages and better working conditions, but also a way to empower workers—and the labor movement as a whole—by developing portable skills and building networks inside and outside the workplace." 

She’s right. Organizing is not simply a means to higher wages and better working conditions, but also a way to empower workers—and the labor movement as a whole—by developing portable skills and building networks inside and outside the workplace. Looking forward, while there are considerable challenges for unions, there may be some hope as opposition to President Trump, Republican austerity governance, and years of corporate dominance of the private and public spheres rises. Unions may be entering a time in which they can build their capacity as well as worker capacity, setting in motion a virtuous cycle that changes the electoral and legislative game while empowering them and their members.

 

The 2020 opportunity

Decades of decline have left unions in rough shape heading into the 2020 election. Writing in the Washington Post during the Democratic primaries, Greenhouse argues that anti-union attacks by Republicans put the Democrats at electoral risk. Like Isser, he points out that fewer members means less money in dues to spend on messaging and campaigns, and less organizing power. But the Democrats, at least, are, at last, on to the GOP’s game.

“I have written about labor unions and political campaigns for more than two decades,” writes Greenhouse, “and never have I seen so much talk among Democrats about the importance of unions and helping unions expand as I’ve seen among this year’s presidential candidates...Just as Republicans have seen that pulling down labor has been important to their political successes, Democrats are finally recognizing that building up unions and union membership could be vital to their successes in the 2020 presidential race and beyond.” 

Despite constrained resources, the union vote itself remains a potential force more likely to be won by Democrats than the Republicans. Isser points out, “In 2016, 37% of union members and 40% of union households voted for Donald Trump. The defection of parts of this key constituency to the Republican party has scared many Democrats into taking a more unabashedly pro-worker and pro-union position.”

Isser’s assessment supports Greenhouse’s suggestion that the Democrats are taking unions seriously. “Joe Biden, not exactly the picture of a union militant, has, to his credit, centered union issues in his campaign,” Isser says. “He supports the PRO-Act which would make it much easier for workers to unionize; stimulate American manufacturing; put an end to right-to-work legislation; and crack down on management abuses. These overtures to union members seem to be working with many former swing vote unionists preferring Biden over Trump.”

 

"While declining union density—and, consequently, declining union resources and capacity—has put Democrats at a disadvantage in 2020, given the party’s traditional electoral advantage among union voters, the top-line continues to read well for them."

While declining union density—and, consequently, declining union resources and capacity—has put Democrats at a disadvantage in 2020, given the party’s traditional electoral advantage among union voters, the top-line continues to read well for them. A shift to more pro-worker policy offerings and messaging backed by union mobilization against Republicans—especially since unions are a strong voting heuristic for their members, despite some notable exceptions—ought to serve Democrats well.

So will Trump’s unpopularity. As the president hit his 1357th day in office, 53.3 percent of Americans disproved of the job he’s done, with only 43.2 percent approving. Those numbers are reflected in election polling, too.

Overall, Biden leads Trump by double digits, with a gap between the two that may be as high as 16 points. A look at recent polling in swing states demonstrates the point. As of October 7, Biden leads in Pennsylvania (+5.6 percent), Ohio (+0.4 percent), Michigan (7.1 percent), North Carolina (+1.4 percent), Arizona (+2.6 percent), and Wisconsin (+6.6 percent). He trails Trump only in Iowa, by 0.4 percent.

Biden also leads Trump in heavily-unionized Nevada, not to mention his lock on other states with relatively high union density, including New York, New Jersey, and California.

Of course, Biden was always going to perform well in California, New York, and New Jersey. But Trump’s 2016 win depended on flipping key states won by Barack Obama in 2012, which he did by winning Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Most, perhaps all, of those states are now at risk for Trump, who has pulled campaign ads in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, among other states.

 

A new hope

In 2016, Donald Trump ran on a pro-worker message that was ultimately hollow. Worse than hollow, in fact. As president, Trump undermined unions and workers. His promises of a return to the old ways—and jobs! jobs! jobs!—never really materialized. His agenda served wealthy Americans, not workers. Now Trump is paying the price for writing checks he couldn’t cash.

Despite years of declining union density driven by anti-union politicians and legislation that enabled corporate raids on worker rights, there may be hope. Joe Biden describes himself as a “union man,” and as Isser and others have pointed out, he is offering a policy agenda that may give unions reason to think better days are ahead. More to the point, however, he may be in a position to actually implement that agenda where others have failed before him.

 

"Joe Biden describes himself as a “union man,” and as Isser and others have pointed out, he is offering a policy agenda that may give unions reason to think better days are ahead. More to the point, however, he may be in a position to actually implement that agenda where others have failed before him."

 

Greenhouse remembers past effort. “Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s, Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and Barack Obama in 2008 to 2016, they all tried pushing Congress to enact laws that would make it easier to unionize,” says he says. “All four times, Republicans mounted filibusters…and every time the Democrats made a serious effort to make it easier to unionize, Republicans blocked it.”

This time might be different. Very different. Not only might Biden win in November, Democrats could win the Senate and even end the filibuster, which has stood in the way of, among other things, more pro-worker and pro-union legislation.

If a Biden win in the executive, a Senate flip in the legislature, and a procedural change in the demise of the filibuster do indeed come to pass, then it could be the case that not only will unions have affected the outcome of the 2020 election, they will have also helped secure a more robust future for themselves and their workers for decades to come. There’s no guarantee that things will play out this way, especially after years of defeat and, at best, modest progress. But sometimes big changes come in the way that, as John Green writes, one falls asleep and in love: “slowly, and then all at once.”

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