The Return of the Labor Question

The Return of the Labor Question

Absent a sufficient level of density to carry the swing states, unions are seeking to turn out not just their own members but sympathetic communities as well.

Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO Workers’ Presidential Summit on September 17, 2019 (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Has the pandemic brought the labor question back to life? It may not have achieved the salience of the public-health-in-the-time-of-pandemic question, but it’s surely the most prominent subset of it. The coronavirus has brought a new visibility to a huge share of America’s working class—treated as both essential and disposable—that was previously invisible to much of the nation’s political elite.

The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on the working class and people of color came to light at the end of a decade in which the labor question had already crept back into the nation’s discourse. Since Occupy Wall Street sounded the alarm in 2011, stratospheric levels of economic inequality in the United States have been a growing concern in left, liberal, and, more recently, centrist circles. Until recently, many on the center left confined their concerns to inequality itself—favoring, for instance, a hike in the minimum wage. Workers, in this view, suffered from a deficiency of training, not a deficiency of power.

Millennials—disproportionately powerless, underpaid, and radical—wanted none of that. Mobilized by two Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, they joined unions wherever they could (on campuses, in the media, and in nonprofits) and helped push the conversation beyond inequality to one of its root causes: deunionization. This shift coincided with the shockingly belated realization among Democratic politicos that deunionization was also a root cause of the white working class’s defection from Democratic ranks.

Over the past decade, public approval of unions has risen steadily to a little over 60 percent—the highest it has been in half a century. And in the past two years, unions themselves have begun to stir. The wave of successful teacher strikes, some in states where unions were weak and public-sector collective bargaining was unheard of, managed to win broad public support, resulting in wage increases as well as better funding for pubic services. Supermarket and hotel workers went on strike and won living wages.

Unions have adopted a more expansive agenda than they’ve had in decades, and they successfully persuaded mainstream Democrats to support much of it. In February, House Democrats passed a bill with a near-unanimous vote to greatly increase workers’ ability to organize and sustain unions (dead on arrival, of course, in Mitch McConnell’s Senate). And every serious Democratic presidential candidate released a labor platform that not only called for removing obstacles to unionization but, in some cases, advocated for putting workers on corporate boards and repealing most of the Taft−Hartley Act (the seventy-three-year-old law that tilts labor issues in management’s favor). Joe Biden now feels compelled to consider policies that go beyond anything he’s supported before in order to rebuild an economy now in tatters. Labor and its allies are working to present him with a twenty-first-century version of the New Deal.

So, at the start of 2020, America’s labor movement was both emboldened and endangered as seldom before. For unions, removing Trump from the White House and replacing him with a Democrat is a matter of life and death. Only a handful of unions made primary endorsements; compared to Trump, any Democrat would do. How they can help beat Trump when membership in key states is substantially reduced is their foremost concern.

This, then, is the labor question in 2020: how can unions help propel Democrats to victory in November, and how can they prompt Democrats, if victorious, to reverse a half-century of diminishing worker power and rights?

The downsizing of labor over the past fifty years has meant the disappearance of an entire political culture. “What we learned from the CIO in 1944,” says former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, referring to labor’s initial and most successful mass campaign for Democratic candidates, was to “convey the sense that it’s okay to vote for the Democrat. When you got a flyer at work, opened your mail, answered the door to talk to a fellow union member or a neighbor out canvassing, it created an echo chamber for white working-class voters. Today, Trump has taken over the echo chamber, with his tweets, his rallies, his media.”

“We need to take the echo chamber back again,” Rosenthal says, “but that requires the labor movement to do more than it’s done before.”

In order to win representation, labor leaders must communicate effectively not only with members—a task greatly complicated by the limits that the coronavirus pandemic has put on personal contact—but also with the nonunion working class in all its diversity, including minorities and immigrants who may not regularly vote and white workers who are unswayed by unions’ economic arguments.

The strategy behind a renewed electoral focus is the same one unions have employed in recent years to win victories at the bargaining table and in statehouses and city halls: bargaining for the common good. The teachers who went on strike in red states and blue cities demanded not just wage increases but also provisions that enabled their schools to better serve students and their parents. Many of these organizers formulated their demands in conjunction with community groups, and their bargaining clout derived from the support that parents and neighborhood groups gave them. Similarly, while the “Fight for $15 and a Union” campaign undertaken by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) failed to unionize low-wage workers, it succeeded, with community backing, in winning minimum wage increases for tens of millions of people.

As with bargaining, so with politics. Absent a sufficient level of union density to carry the swing states, unions are seeking to turn out not just their own members but sympathetic communities as well. “Community,” says American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, “is the new density.”

For some of the biggest unions, efforts to mobilize community members to vote are anything but new. The AFL-CIO has waged such campaigns for years; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been particularly active in black communities, while SEIU has targeted, among others, immigrants and Latinos with its get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Despite their size, unions alone can’t transform a community into an echo chamber of friends and neighbors who are regular and trusted political interlocutors. “We can’t just parachute people into communities in the last month before an election and make a difference,” says AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “People want to see people they know, that they can relate to. So we work closely with organizations that have a year-round presence in targeted communities.”

One such organization is For Our Future, which was founded in 2016 by the AFT and the AFL-CIO and is largely funded by major unions and billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer’s youth-turnout organization NextGen. For Our Future maintains a permanent canvass in minority communities in seven states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia—which not only works to turn out community members at election time but also to involve them in campaigns over issues like adequate state funding for public services.

“We never pack up and leave,” says Justin Myers, the organization’s president. “In 2018, we spent 298 days going door-to-door.” That year, For Our Future’s roughly 4,500 staffers contacted 1.4 million voters. As in most community canvasses, the first discussions with residents concerned the issues of particular importance to them. Among young Floridians, it was gun control; among working-class Detroit residents, it was inaccessible auto insurance and the decay of city streets. These canvasses produced the kind of information that helped shape 2018’s Democratic campaigns (in case you were wondering how Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer came up with the slogan “Fix the damn roads”).

Where community-based groups have already established a strong political presence, For Our Future and its union supporters provide material assistance without treading on anyone’s turf. A number of union leaders say one key to Democrats’ success in April’s Wisconsin primary, which saw a surprise victory in the race for a state supreme court seat, was the campaign waged by Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) to turn out voters in the Milwaukee African-American neighborhoods where BLOC had already established bona fides as a community advocate.

While For Our Future works on minority turnout in cities, the AFL-CIO’s Working America program has operated voter canvasses targeting white working-class communities in swing states since 2003. This year, its efforts will be supplemented by a new operation, Union 2020, that Steve Rosenthal—now a campaign consultant for unions—devised. “Just because unions have lost members,” he says, “those lost members are not necessarily anti-union.”

For Union 2020, six major unions—AFT, AFCSME, SEIU, the National Education Association (NEA), the Teamsters, and the Communications Workers of America (CWA)—came up with the names and contact information of 480,000 former members in four key swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Union 2020 also identified 4.5 million residents of those states who are not affiliated with unions—“neither hard Democrats nor hard Republicans,” Rosenthal says—but who, polling showed, view unions favorably. Before the coronavirus lockdown, For Our Future staffers canvassed a sample of both groups of voters, sounding out their economic concerns. Further discussions with those voters will likely shape campaign messaging later this year—though the conversations may not take place on residents’ doorsteps, as they have in the past.

Four multi-million-member public-sector unions—AFT, NEA, SEIU, and AFSCME—have driven much of the community mobilization in recent years. As far back as 2015, those unions understood they were in the crosshairs of anti-union Republicans on the Supreme Court, whose 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME subjected public-employee unions to nationwide right-to-work restrictions. Since then, the four unions have closely coordinated their efforts. “Our interests are the same,” says AFSCME president Saunders. “It’s much more powerful if the four largest public service unions can strategize and plan around a range of issues and around a political program.”

The four unions together have more resources and larger staffs than the omnibus AFL-CIO (of which AFT and AFCSME are members), which in recent years has had to make significant personnel cuts due to budgetary constraints. One longtime union official says the AFL-CIO can “no longer provide the national center of gravity it once did” to labor’s political effort. At the state and municipal levels, however, a number of local and regional AFL-CIO federations still coordinate election campaigns; in California, SEIU—the largest union in the state, with more than 700,000 members—has retained its affiliation with the federation. SEIU is “working very closely with us,” says Steve Smith, communications director of the California Labor Federation (CLF), “on the campaign to defeat the Uber-Lyft measure,” an item on the fall ballot that would overturn a state law forcing ride-hailing services to treat their drivers as employees rather than independent contractors.

A number of unions in recent years have intensified outreach to their own members in response to the existential threat posed by the GOP. AFSCME, foreseeing that Janus would require them to represent non-dues-paying workers, initiated a massive internal organizing program in which union activists canvassed 1 million fellow members to gather their thoughts on what direction the union should take. The CWA, which has focused much of its political effort this year on four states that could swing the Senate to the Democrats (Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Georgia), has similarly canvassed its members to collect their chief concerns, which include drug prices and paid leave. “We thought most members wouldn’t be that concerned over paid leave, since they already have it through their contracts, but they were outraged that everyone didn’t have it,” says CWA political director Shane Larson.

Canvassing members and communities has become a great deal more challenging since the nation has sheltered in place. At the beginning of March, the Teamsters convened in Chicago for a critical meeting of its political directors in key swing states. After formulating some detailed plans, they adjourned to O’Hare. “There was no one there; it was dead,” recalls Christy Bailey, the union’s national political director. “It was instantly clear our plans had to be reconfigured.”

Like many organizations, America’s labor unions are currently undergoing fundamental reconfigurations. With one-on-one worksite meetings and doorstep conversations an impossibility, conceivably up to Election Day, unions are experimenting with other forms of outreach. The pandemic has compelled the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents more than a million frontline workers, most of them in supermarkets and some in slaughterhouses, to experiment. “Digital communication was always going to be part of our electoral program later this year,” says one UFCW official, “but now we’re in constant digital communication with our members on basic survival issues. Meatpackers’ jobs are so dangerous [that] they’re very responsive to petitions to elected officials on safety issues and hazard pay.”

Wisconsin’s significant April primary—the only state election not postponed once shelter-in-place orders took effect—forced unions to shift their outreach to digital media, social media, and texting. One older form of outreach was also revived: “We saw a complete reversal in our phone contact rate,” said Brian Weeks, AFSCME’s political director. “Phoning had been a dying tactic, but we found there was a much higher rate of people willing to talk on the phone once they’d been compelled to stay home.” As of late May, AFSCME and other public-sector unions have urged their membership to prod Congress to include aid for state and local governments in the next relief bill. For its part, the AFT has held “tele-town halls” on a host of issues, some election related, to which as many as 35,000 members have dialed in.

Some union programs will be harder to transfer to pandemic conditions. In recent years, the labor movement in California—now as blue as any state in the nation—has sent thousands of volunteers to the neighboring swing states of Nevada and Arizona to help unions there turn out Democratic voters. “We don’t know if this will be physically possible this year,” says Steve Smith, “but providing that support, if we have to do it through other media, is still a top priority. . . . We may have to learn new technologies, but . . . organizing is [still] organizing.”

As far back as the Great Society Congress of 1965, unions have periodically attempted to tilt the labor question back in workers’ favor. Initially their efforts centered on repealing section 14-b of Taft−Hartley, which allowed states to impose right-to-work laws. As employers increasingly violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by firing workers for organizing, unions sought to increase the nominal penalties for illegal dismissals. They later fought to let workers join unions by signing affiliation cards; then they petitioned for compulsory independent arbitration when companies refused to bargain. Every one of these efforts by unions—undertaken when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress (in 1965, 1979, 1994, and 2010)—passed the House but failed to surmount the sixty-vote cloture required in the Senate.

In 2019, when the Democrats regained control of the House, labor came together in support of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The act, says one senior union official, “had a different conceptual framework than EFCA,” the Employee Free Choice Act, which labor had put forth in 2009 and 2010. EFCA focused on changing unionization election rules. “This time,” according to the official, “the conceptual framework was all about increasing worker power.”

The PRO Act aimed to do just that. It provided for card check and mandatory contract arbitration if employers stonewalled. But it also would have greatly increased the fines companies paid if they violated workers’ right to organize; enabled workers to seek redress in case of work violations at the National Labor Relations Board and in court; given workers the right to file class action suits against employers; forbade employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings; banned employers from permanently replacing strikers; enabled unions to conduct secondary boycotts against companies doing business with firms whose workers were on strike; allowed labor and management to together require all workers represented by the union to pay dues (a semi-repeal of right-to-work laws); and required companies that mislabeled gig workers as independent contractors to reclassify them as employees.

The PRO Act passed the House this February on a vote of 224 to 194, with just seven Democrats voting “no” and five Republicans voting “yes.” The seven Democrats included three from relatively liberal cities in very conservative states (Charleston, South Carolina; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Oklahoma City) and three more from the South. Even if the Democrats take the White House and Senate in November, Democratic senators from conservative states could prove an obstacle to passing pro-union legislation.

Still, the PRO Act’s overwhelming support among House Democrats shows that mainstream Democrats now take labor more seriously than they have in decades. Joe Biden’s labor platform actually goes beyond the policies of the PRO Act. It makes CEOs personally liable for violations of the NLRA. Biden would also make collective bargaining a right for public employees nationwide, ban forced arbitration and employer non-compete clauses, and extend bargaining rights and federal wage and overtime laws to farm and domestic workers.

Unions are squarely behind this ambitious lists of particulars, but they differ on other aspects of the labor question, such as corporate governance. Some unions support the establishment of works councils, where employers and worker representatives meet regularly to discuss and resolve workplace issues, as a way to promote worker power. But others fear that works councils give employers undue sway over unions. Co-determination—putting a share of worker representatives of corporate boards—is a policy advanced by several Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren—but it’s not a priority for the labor movement. “It works in Germany,” says one union staffer, “because it’s a consequence of worker power. It’s not a cause of worker power.”

Meanwhile, SEIU, one of the nation’s largest and most politically potent unions, has promoted laws enabling collective bargaining across entire sectors of industries. The United States has never had such statutes, although when the United Auto Workers and Teamsters were stronger they were able to win sectoral bargaining in auto and trucking. In a way, SEIU has been engaging in a form of sectoral bargaining for the past decade: it has successfully prodded states and cities to adopt a $15 minimum wage. Unfortunately, given all the obstacles to unionization the PRO Act is intended to dispel, that “bargaining” has not resulted in unionizing the low-wage workers whose pay it managed to raise.

As this year’s presidential primaries revealed, unions also remain divided on the question of Medicare for All. Those that have negotiated for particularly excellent healthcare plans—such as Culinary Union Local 226 in Las Vegas—view Medicare for All as a step down for members. Whether such unions will rethink their stance in the wake of the pandemic, which has seen millions of workers lose their job-related health coverage, remains to be seen. Unions might be able to come together around the plan that Senator Warren advanced in her presidential campaign, which preserved a role for collectively bargained benefits in addition to those offered by a universal Medicare program.

The economic havoc wrought by the pandemic has already prompted unions to unite behind the most comprehensive versions of the stimulus plans that have come before Congress. Should the Democrats win in November, they will doubtless unite in support of massive, multi-year public investments in the caring sector (not just healthcare but child and elder care as well), education, and infrastructure. With sufficient investment in green infrastructure, two long-antagonistic elements of the Democratic coalition—the building trades unions and the environmentalists—might at last find common ground.

But first, labor has to figure out a way to ensure that Democrats hold the House, win the Senate, and oust Donald Trump. They’re working on it.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect and a longtime member of Dissent’s editorial board.