For more than a quarter century, the American labor movement has been struggling to convince Democrats of the value of unions and the crucial role they play in the struggle for social and economic justice. To be sure, most Democrats have given lip service to the importance of unions, but at the highest level of Democratic campaigns—the presidential—even lip service has seldom been heard.
During the past three decades, a running question raised by union activists about Democratic candidates for president has been, “Did s/he use the ‘U’ word?” Meaning, did the candidate even mention unions? Unless they were speaking to a union audience, the answer was usually “no.”
Today, for the first time in my life, we are seeing something of a reversal. Take one look at this (massive) lineup of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and you will find the most outspoken, pro-union crop of candidates we have seen in a very long time. In fact, an analysis by Blue Compass Strategies found that Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—the top five candidates in the Democratic presidential field based on an average of recent polling—have collectively mentioned unions at least 100 times on social media over the past month alone. The Democratic candidates are “talking union.”
Once upon a time, this was the norm. Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, and continuing through the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Democratic presidential candidates regularly talked about the value of having a union card. Then, that changed. The fall from grace arguably began during the 1984 primaries, when Colorado Senator Gary Hart ran against AFL-CIO-endorsed Walter Mondale, the former vice president, by claiming Mondale was the candidate of “special interests” (that meant: unions). That criticism, which was repeated by other “new Democrats” throughout the campaign and in the ensuing years, became something of a trend and came at a big political cost to unions.
Three years prior to that, President Reagan had helped usher in an open season on union workers when he fired the striking air-traffic controllers. Beginning with the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, federal courts were stacked against workers, laws that made it nearly impossible for unions to win organizing campaigns were strictly enforced, and globalization and deindustrialization wreaked havoc on workers. Employers became increasingly emboldened to oppose unionization, giving birth to entire industries dedicated to busting unions. By the 1992 presidential election—and running through 2012—Democratic presidential candidates still sought union support, but they did so essentially without having to “wear the union label.” Sure, most candidates would still make appearances before union audiences, but they did not make unions or workers’ rights central to their campaigns.
In the 2016 election, we finally saw a bit of a shift back in unions’ direction, as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made overtures to labor at various points in the primary campaign, with both even walking a picket line. However, during the general election, Clinton took her union support for granted, never making the traditional Democratic presidential candidate visits to a UAW hall in battleground Michigan; to a steelworker hall in battleground Pennsylvania; or, famously, any visits at all to battleground Wisconsin, which had a strong union tradition. Clinton went on to lose all three states to Trump, which won him the election.
But, lo and behold, something very different is happening thus far in the 2020 campaign. Democratic candidates are not only courting union support, but also meeting with union members across the country, attending forums exclusively focused on workers’ rights, and using many platforms—including social media—to aggressively trumpet the need to allow more workers access to unions.
Senators Sanders, Warren, and Harris regularly promote labor issues on their social media accounts, on everything from banning right-to-work laws to advocating for a $15 minimum wage to supporting striking public-school teachers. Governor Jay Inslee recently released his Evergreen Economy Plan to address what he described as the two existential threats facing our society: climate change and the decline of unions. Last month, Harris and Warren, along with Julián Castro, John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke, attended the National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas. The event was co-hosted by the Center for American Progress and SEIU, and each candidate spoke at length about the importance of unions in helping strengthen America’s working and middle classes, as well as their support for a pro-worker agenda. Several candidates have spoken about their personal connections to workers as well. Senator Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden regularly highlight their working-class roots, while Senator Klobuchar often talks about her grandfather, who was an iron ore miner and a Teamster, and her mother, a teacher and AFT member.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. As unionization rates declined in the late 20th century, the right wing did everything possible to wipe out unions entirely. Through ballot initiatives, legislation, and direct organizing, right-wing donors invested hundreds of millions of dollars in state-based groups under the State Policy Network, with a goal of putting unions out of business. On the legal front, anti-worker billionaires such as the Koch brothers-funded lawsuits to help move these efforts through the courts. This culminated in the June 2018 Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME, in which the conservative 5–to-4 majority effectively established “right-to-work” in all 50 states for public-sector employees. The ensuing headlines portended a grim future for both unions and the Democratic Party. And the right wing wasn’t done: following the decision, the Koch-backed Freedom Foundation launched an “opt-out” campaign to persuade union members to desert their unions.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Janus decision, however, groups like the Freedom Foundation have failed miserably. According to the most recent Department of Labor filings and the unions’ own records, membership has held steady or increased for the four largest public-sector unions—AFSCME, SEIU, AFT, and the NEA—despite door-to-door canvassing efforts by funded by groups like the Foundation to persuade workers to drop their union memberships. Though the Freedom Foundation has spent $14.3 million over the last five years on such efforts and on court actions, nearly 90 percent of the legal challenges against unions brought by the Freedom Foundation have fallen flat on their face.
With these failures have come political failures, too. Despite promises to donors that they would turn solidly blue states like Washington, Oregon, and California red for Republicans, the anti-union right has had no perceptible post-Janus impact at the polls. In 2018, we saw Democratic victories up and down the ballot in all three states, and now Democrats hold nearly every statewide office and enjoy increased majorities in all three legislatures, gaining supermajority status in the Oregon Senate as well as the California Senate and Assembly. In the last few years, since the Freedom Foundation launched their “opt-out” campaign, these states have passed statewide minimum wage hikes, paid sick leave laws, fair scheduling laws, affordable housing laws, and increased education funding. Just this month, Oregon passed a tax on large corporations doing more than $1 million in sales in the state that would generate $1 billion annually for Oregon’s public schools.
What the Right doesn’t understand is that union members understand that their unions are as important today—in our new Gilded Age—as they have been at any time in our history. In the current economy, it matters that union members earn more than non-union workers in similar jobs (up to 13.2 percent more, in fact), and have better benefits and more rights on the job.
For their part, many unions are actively working to rebuild their ranks. Spurred in part by Janus, they have started doing more outreach to their members.
It’s not just union members who feel good about unions—the public increasingly understands the importance of organized labor, too. Support for unions is growing, particularly among millennials. An August 2018 Gallup survey found a full 62 percent of Americans approved of unions, a 15-year high for that question. Support levels are even higher among young Americans: Sixty-eight percent hold a favorable view of unions, compared to just 46 percent who feel the same way about corporations, according to Pew Research. There is increasingly widespread agreement among economists that one of the main reasons for the squeezing of the middle class has been the weakening of labor.
Nearly one year ago, the Right was celebrating the Janus decision as journalists declared it to be a death blow to unions. But today, unions have gotten stronger, workers (led by the teachers) have waged and won major strikes, young workers in particular have won unionization in their workplaces, and Democratic candidates for president have embraced unions as they haven’t done in decades. There are now several voices on the national stage talking union again, and the next step will be electing a president who will give working people the seat at the table they deserve.