Union Power After the Election

Union Power After the Election

The development of a social democratic faction in the Democratic Party has given labor a chance to punch above its weight. But access alone isn’t power.

Joe Biden speaks at the United Steelworkers headquarters following the Allegheny County Labor Day Parade in 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Since election day, the manic performances by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and Sidney Powell of the “indigenous American berserk” have surely been keeping Philip Roth in stitches in whatever part of the great beyond he dwells. Meanwhile, the leadership of the American labor movement has been its stolid self.

Following the election, Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, said that organized labor had done its part to defeat Trump because it “got out the vote.” Because of this election’s unusually high percentage of mail-in votes, exit polling may not be reliable, but it appears to more or less confirm Trumka’s statement: Joe Biden got 56 percent of the union household vote—just a shade below typical for recent election cycles before 2016 and an improvement on Hillary Clinton’s 51 percent, but a far cry from the 84 percent of the unionized voters that Lyndon B. Johnson got in 1964.

With the exception of a few reactionary outliers, American union leaders did what they always do: given the awful alternative, they urged their membership to vote for the Democrat for president and for down-ballot Democrats too. In this case, that benefited Biden, a barometric politician whose time in national office has stretched from the era of segregationist James Eastland to that of Barack Obama.

Throughout his career, Biden has moved right or left to position himself squarely within the middle of his party. His approach toward unions has been spotty and opportunistic. As historian and Dissent editorial board member Gabriel Winant argued in the Guardian in 2019, “Scranton Joe,” Biden’s son-of-the-working-class persona, has always been a kind of workerist cosplay, one that’s tied to the masculinity of the great manufacturing, mining, and transportation unions of the mid-twentieth century. Still, for the AFL-CIO, defeating Trump was mission accomplished.

But there’s another way to read the election that suggests the union household vote didn’t make much difference at all. There are significant splits between what Edison Research, an exit poll organization, and the AFL-CIO are claiming in Pennsylvania (where Biden won by 1 percent) and in Ohio (where he lost by 8 percent). Edison has Trump winning a majority of the union household vote in both states, smashing Biden 57 to 43 percent in Ohio. Based on its own polling, the AFL-CIO claims Biden carried the union household vote in both states.

Other key states no longer have enough union members to significantly affect the outcome of elections. For example, in Wisconsin, which Biden barely won, union density is lower than ever, about 8 percent, after former governor Scott Walker’s successful effort to pass right-to-work laws (except, pointedly, for cops and firefighters). We don’t have a breakdown in these states of the union vote by racial demographics or by particular union, but nobody would be surprised if white building trades and manufacturing workers voted in large numbers, perhaps outright majorities, for Trump.

There is still a political “union premium,” with unionized white men voting more Democratic than non-union white men. But the difference appears to be smaller than it has been in decades. That Bernie Sanders, with a bold, redistributive, pro-union message, could not carry the relatively moderate white working class within the Democratic Party indicates the gravity of the challenge for both labor and the Democrats.

Before the pandemic, Trump presided over a hot economy with tax cuts, budget increases, low interest rates, and low unemployment. In addition, the CARES Act effectively provided income support for precarious working-class voters for months. It’s probable this helped him improve his support over 2016 with non-white workers. However, 91 percent of black women voted for Biden, and it’s likely that the Democrats received overwhelming support from the membership of what are now the flagship unions, based in the public sector, healthcare, education, and hospitality, of the postindustrial American economy and labor movement—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, UNITE HERE (the gaming and hospitality union), and National Nurses United.

In recent years, the members of these unions, who are disproportionately female and non-white, have been central to some of the largest and most important labor actions of the new working class: several Chicago Teachers Union strikes beginning in 2012; the wildcat strikes and job actions of teachers across mostly red states in 2018, starting in West Virginia; the United Teachers Los Angeles strike of 2019; and aggressive organizing and strikes by healthcare workers and nurses all over the country.

Their militancy is a major reason why labor may have more influence with Biden than it had with Obama. The urgency caused by the pandemic-driven collapse of the economy and the development of a significant social democratic faction within the Democratic Party has also given labor a chance to punch above its weight and promote broad policies on behalf of the working class.

Yet at the moment labor’s leadership looks primed to screw up its first chance to effectively throw that weight around in the tussle over the nominee for secretary of labor. Unions could have reached a consensus to recommend one of two terrific choices said to be in the running: Julie Su, California’s brilliant and relentless secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and a leader in the fight against misclassification, or Andy Levin, the Michigan congressman with decades of union experience and bona fides: Levin was an organizer with SEIU, an assistant organizing director of the AFL-CIO, and worked in Bill Clinton’s Department of Labor (DOL) and as a top labor official in Michigan’s state government. Both Su and Levin have the combination of administrative chops and authentic advocacy to awaken the sleeping bureaucratic giant that is the DOL. Both of them also have spent years forging relationships with leftist activists beyond labor in and around the Democratic Party, in recognition that any labor politics today must also incorporate environmental and racial justice activism.

Instead of reaching consensus on one of these excellent choices, however, unions are, according to media reports, split between a minority in favor of Levin and a more dominant group promoting Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former chief of the city’s building trades. Walsh is OK as building trades guys go. (He would certainly be an improvement over the last one to head the DOL, Peter J. Brennan, a Nixon apparatchik and defender of the New York construction workers who assaulted antiwar demonstrators in 1970.) But Su and Levin are both stellar.

The best reason that union insiders have given for backing Walsh is that he’s buds with Biden. “He’s a friend and knows Joe: They’ve worked together on numerous occasions,” Trumka said. “They have the relationship I think is necessary.” Seeing this quote brought back a story I heard years ago about how union presidents loved getting “official” White House cufflinks from Democratic presidents. Labor leaders have convinced themselves, over these many fallow years, that “access” is power. They can’t grasp that insisting on dynamic leadership for even a second-order cabinet department, with an $11 billion budget and 15,000 employees, matters more than who Biden likes eating cheeseburgers with.

Notwithstanding his own history, Biden’s labor platform is quite aggressive and, with a couple of exceptions, comparable to those issued by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during their presidential campaigns. This speaks to a “laborist” sentiment within the party, especially among youngish, urban leftists in media and academia. But, it must be said, even Pete Buttigieg had a strong labor platform, and the legislative aspects of all these plans is dependent upon Democratic control of the Senate and elimination of the supermajority filibuster.

Biden’s plan is grounded in the PRO Act, an improved version of the “card check bill” that a much larger Democratic majority in the Senate lacked the votes to even consider in 2009. Moreover, filling the National Labor Relations Board with pro-union officials—a move that could meaningfully mitigate obstacles to organizing—faces the twin challenge of a staggered board and a likely Republican Senate. There is a wishful and wistful quality—a desire for those cufflinks of yore—to labor leaders claiming a political power that the Madisonian presidential system of separated power, a hyper-partisan and revanchist GOP, and labor’s systemic decline denies them. The paradox of union power in the United States is that when labor has the power to insist on more state assistance, it needs it the least. When it lacks a thumb on the scale, it needs that help the most.

Labor’s weaknesses are both a central cause and effect of the limitations of the Democratic Party as a vehicle for a multiracial, redistributive political economy. Especially in the United States, labor needs to maximize its political influence with and within the state in order to overcome capital’s enormous, hegemonic advantages. But it can’t do that without power in the workplace and civil society. This is a huge challenge: there is a temporal disjuncture between the short-term imperatives of forging electoral coalitions and longer prospects for mass organizing key sectors of the economy. Sometimes those timelines align, as when the steel and auto industries organized at the peak of the New Deal’s power in 1937. But today the political and organizing tracks are not synchronized.

For example, Biden carried Georgia, the first Democrat to do so since Clinton in 1992, but the coalition he put together reveals the limits of class-based politics at a time of rural non-unionization and anti-urbanism. In 1936, when Jim Crow compelled an almost all-white electorate in Georgia, FDR carried every county in the state but one. Alf Landon, the GOP candidate, got just 12 percent of the state vote. In 2020, Harris County, which is about 80 percent white and where the large F.D. Roosevelt State Park is located, saw a comparatively strong Biden rural vote: 27 percent. In other rural white counties, Biden didn’t do much better than Landon did in ’36.

According to election analysts Nate Cohn of the New York Times and Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, Biden carried Georgia because of a huge increase in turnout and anti-Trump sentiment in the growing multiracial suburbs of Metro Atlanta. These voters are not necessarily even Democrats—many of them voted for Republicans down-ballot—let alone progressive. But the Democrats can win elections by appealing to them, while the descendants of those Jim Crow–era rural white FDR voters aren’t accessible to either the modern labor movement or the modern Democratic Party.

This is where the historical tracks of electoral democracy and cohesive working-class power sharply diverge. There is no workplace organizing at scale possible in rural regions that lack universities or hospitals—the workplaces are too small and diffuse; but without unions, it’s hard to see what mediating institutions might mitigate anti-cosmopolitanism. Without a multiracial coalition that can bring together the rural and urban working class, Democrats have little choice but to calibrate their economic platform to appeal to both workers and wealthier professionals, in continuation with the party’s overall strategy in recent decades. The burgeoning labor-left professional managerial class—represented by the readership of this journal and also Jacobin—provide a cultural spark, but it is not yet large enough to change outcomes outside of deep blue areas. For now, unions can do little to create the institutional ballast that would enact the class solidarity needed to offer an alternative.

The situation is better in the Midwest than in the South, but not that much better. The unionized factories and plants across the Midwest that anchored rural white areas are gone.

In 1989, I spent several insanely cold weeks in and around New Hampton, Iowa, in the small, rural county of Chickasaw in the northeastern part of the state, interviewing workers at the unionized Sara Lee croissant and muffin plant there about serious safety and health issues that company speed-ups had caused. The houses in the community were the smallest I had seen in the United States, but the plant of about 500 workers, in a county with a population of only about 13,000, provided an economic anchor. In 1988, a couple of months before I showed up, Michael Dukakis, no heir to Eugene Debs, won the state and easily carried the county against George H.W. Bush by 16 percent. That Sara Lee plant closed in 2000; this year Biden lost the state by 8 percent and Chickasaw County by a landslide of 31 percent. In 1989, the state had a union density of 15 percent. Today it’s 6 percent.

Still, Scranton Joe can be pushed around a bit, and a Democratic administration can mitigate some of the damage of the Trump years. But the severing of rural white workers from an emancipatory project of class struggle means that unions are severely circumscribed. They are going to have a very hard time regaining economic and political power. For now, Democrats will have to continue to cobble together cross-class coalitions to win elections, and the policies they pursue will reflect this compromise.

This is the geographic reality that organized labor faces today. The mostly urbanized education and healthcare sectors are at the center of the U.S. political economy. The unions in these sectors are the greatest hope for any political strategy for labor in the years ahead. Biden, with more than a bit of blarney for such a conventional politician, likes to invoke Seamus Heaney’s line from his great poem “The Cure at Troy”:

The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

I prefer Brecht’s more cynical but perversely stirring epigram: always prefer the bad new days to the good old ones.


Rich Yeselson is a member of Dissent’s editorial board. He is writing a book about the causes and consequences of the passage of the 1947 TaftHartley Act.


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