Unions Have Won the War of Ideas. Will That Win Them Power?

Workplace solidarity is so hot right now. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

There is power in a union, but scant union power in the United States.

Last year, America’s unionization rate fell to a new historic low of 10.5 percent. Among private-sector workers, it was a piddling 6.4 percent. Government workers’ resilient organizing has long kept the broader labor movement off of life support. But in 2018, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority gutted the capacity of such workers to collect union dues. Now, the public-sector unionization rate is falling faster than the private one — and organized labor is losing the class war in a rout.

Chart: CBS News

And yet, it is simultaneously winning the “war of ideas.”

If the union movement’s political influence were an index of its economic power, then the 2020 Democratic field would be the least pro-labor in modern memory. Instead, it is the opposite. Two of the party’s top three presidential contenders are a democratic socialist who directs his supporters to picket lines and a left populist who launched her candidacy with a commemoration of the Bread and Roses Strike. And the 2020 Democrats’ reverence for unions is scarcely limited to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. On issues of health care and higher education, the party’s progressive darlings and self-styled moderates can sharply disagree. But on the subject of labor, their rhetoric is almost indistinguishable.

“The decline of unions is both a symptom and cause of our rigged political system,” Beto O’Rourke writes in a Medium post outlining his ambitious plans for reviving organized labor. “Unions have always been among the best political advocates for working people — union and non-union alike — and provide a check against corporate interests capturing and corrupting our democracy.” Asked at a recent event whether increasing protections for all workers wasn’t more important than increasing unionization rates, Minnesota’s favorite moderate, Amy Klobuchar, replied, “When unions do well, other workers do well that aren’t even in unions … making sure that you have the ability to organize, to be in a union, I think that helps all workers.”

Pete Buttigieg may favor incrementalist alternatives to tuition-free college and Medicare for All, but on union policy, the former McKinsey consultant counsels a nigh-revolutionary rebalancing of power between capital and labor. The South Bend mayor’s plan wouldn’t just expand eligibility for firm-level collective bargaining, and impose “multimillion-dollar penalties that scale with company size” on firms that interfere in union elections — it would also enable workers at competing firms in the same industry to band together and force their respective employers to adopt a single contract. This would enhance workers’ ability to press aggressive wage demands, by reducing the threat that higher labor costs would threaten their employers’ competitive position. Finally, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden launched his candidacy at a union hall and has a robust plan for reforming American labor law, informing Iowans on Labor Day, “If I end up being your nominee and win this election, you will never have a better friend in the White House than Joe Biden for unions.”

To be sure, there’s nothing unusual about Democratic presidential candidates pandering to unions during primary season. But the uniformity of the 2020 field’s pro-labor branding, the radicalism of its various labor platforms — and its collective retreat on issues of trade and education reform that had previously put the party Establishment at odds with segments of the labor movement — all testify to unions’ growing clout beneath blue America’s big tent.

All this invites two related questions: Why has labor achieved such ideological ascendance, even as it suffers material decline? And can the movement leverage the former to change the latter — or are the Democrats’ professions of solidarity mere sound and superstructure, signifying nothing?

In some respects, labor’s material weakness may actually contribute to its ideological strength. In the 1970s, when roughly a quarter of the American labor force was unionized — and strong collective-bargaining agreements were (ostensibly) driving up consumer prices in a context of runaway inflation — it was much easier for technocrats and voters to see a tension between organized labor’s interests and those of the nation writ large. In 2019, by contrast, one can’t plausibly pin America’s economic woes on Big Labor’s audacious wage demands or disruptive militancy. To the contrary, many of the U.S. economy’s most conspicuous problems — tepid wage growth, excessively low inflation, and wrenching inequality — appear at least partially attributable to the union movement’s frailty. Just as Joni Mitchell failed to appreciate paradise until it was replaced with a parking lot, so centrist technocrats failed to recognize labor’s indispensable role in checking the power of capital until the Reagan Revolution paved over the New Deal order and put up Billionaire’s Row. Now, in our post-2008, post-Piketty era, virtually every economist to the left of Larry Kudlow is an evangelist for unions, while economics journals keep publishing studies that confirm the core premises of Pete Seeger’s back catalogue. (Even the “liberal-tarians” of the center-right Niskanen Center, who once savaged trade unions as rent-seeking cartels, now discuss organized labor with a pained ambivalence.)

Another factor in labor’s newfound ideological fashionability is the radicalization of white-collar workers in industries with outsize cultural influence. The upsurge in organizing among the disaffected adjuncts at America’s universities, and terrified journalists in (what remains of) its newsrooms, has done relatively little to boost unionization rates. But these cash-poor, social capital-rich workers have used their platforms and erudition to galvanize popular attention to labor organizing, and make support for union rights as nonnegotiable as support for civil rights in elite liberal circles. This appears to be infusing more pro-labor sentiment into popular culture: The past years’ explosion in digital-media organizing ostensibly helped put a subtly pro-union subplot into a recent episode of HBO’s smash-hit Succession. (Kendall Roy implores the employees of Vaulter Media to suspend their unionization campaign, and keep their deliberations with management in-house. After ostensibly taking Roy’s instruction, the entire staff is summarily fired without any of the severance benefits a union would have surely secured them.)

Finally, while Donald Trump’s policies and appointments are as hostile to labor as Scott Walker’s were, the president has supplied the GOP with a pro-worker rebrand. Now, neither major party wishes to forthrightly defend the prerogatives of the “job creators” who “built that.” Instead, the Republican standard-bearer prefers to cast the blue-collar hard hats of heavy industry as the authors of American prosperity. And although this does little to improve the fortunes of such workers (let alone the heavily female and nonwhite service workers who make up the bulk of the contemporary working class), it does influence the status of labor in the popular imagination. Partisan Republicans now have permission to view unions as potential members of their team, while Democrats have greater incentive to flaunt their plans for strengthening organized labor, so as to heighten the contradictions between the GOP’s workerist rhetoric and plutocratic agenda.

For these reasons, among others, Americans’ approval of labor unions is now near half-century highs, with Republican, independent, and Democratic voters all growing substantially more pro-union since 2009.

Chart: Gallup
Chart: Gallup

But you can’t finance organizing campaigns with positive poll numbers. And it remains unclear how much material benefit labor unions can mine from their newfound cultural cachet.

On the one hand, it’s conceivable that the past year’s uptick in strike activity was both a cause and symptom of labor’s newfound popularity. The teachers’ strikes owed their (often, frustratingly limited) success to the strength of public support for their cause, even in some of America’s most conservative states. It’s plausible that an America in which Sorry to Bother You is a hit film, and in which every digital newsroom is a hotbed of union evangelism, is one where militant labor actions are both more thinkable and more likely to succeed than they’ve been in the recent past.

Chart: Bloomberg

On the other hand, it’s far from clear that popularity will be an adequate substitute for organizational capacity when push comes to shove and labor-law reform comes before the Senate. The Democratic Party is certain to nominate a standard-bearer who supports rewriting America’s labor laws to promote unionization. But in the best-case scenario, to enact such changes, he or she will need to secure the unanimous cooperation of a minuscule Democratic Senate majority. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter all failed to do this back when the labor movement was stronger than it is now (although, Carter scarcely tried). The challenge that has long faced labor in the upper chamber is simple: Union power is regionally concentrated, while representation in the Senate is regionally diffused (and anti-labor regions are wildly overrepresented). Only 5.3 percent of Arizona workers are unionized. When and if labor-law reform comes up for a vote, virtually every major employer in the Grand Canyon State will tell Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to oppose it, while only a tiny fraction of her state’s workforce will be mobilized in support. And many other Senate Democrats will face a similar dilemma.

Organized labor’s strongest partisans will often argue that robust economic reform is impossible in the absence of worker power. Liberal policy wonks can draw up the most ingenious schemes for reducing inequality. Progressive economists can produce the most irrefutable studies on the macroeconomic benefits of social democracy. Leftist journalists, filmmakers, and artists can foster the wokest of all cultural zeitgeists — but if workers aren’t sufficiently organized to put the fear of sit-down strikes in capital, none of that ideological work will count for much.

Labor’s best hope may be that its strongest partisans are wrong.

Unions Have Won the War of Ideas. Will That Win Them Power?