President Donald Trump’s election victory created a wave of optimism among American union members. Trump, his supporters claimed, would give workers a much-needed middle class tax cut and an increase in the minimum wage. The unions that he has repeatedly pledged to fight, however, believe that such a rosy picture of their future is far from reality.
A few decades ago, the United Steelworkers of America (USW) was the most powerful labor union in the U.S., with a membership that reached more than 1.8 million people. Today, the USW is a shadow of its former self: its membership has fallen by nearly one-third and stands at roughly 150,000 members.
Unions today face a lot of obstacles, but they’re not too bad. In this turbulent political climate, unions have been ridiculed and demonized, even in the midst of a presidential campaign that seems to have been hostile toward them. Today, however, unions can be found in nearly every sector of the American economy, from the education sector to the oil and gas sector to the public sector, and even in the health care sector.
Joe Biden is the most pro-labor president since at least Lyndon B. Johnson, or perhaps ever, depending on who you ask.
Moreover, unions are currently more popular than they have been since their heyday. According to a Gallup poll published this week, 68 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of labor unions, the highest level since 1965 and up from just 48 percent in 2009. Younger employees are much more supportive of unions, with 77 percent of those aged 34 and under agreeing.
“I believe the nation has taken a second look at unions because of the epidemic, and they appreciate what they see,” Tim Schlittner, communications director for the AFL-CIO union organization, said. “Workers are gaining strength from one another. And now is a critical time for the labor movement to capitalize on this momentum and expand our numbers.”
In many areas of the economy, there is also a generally more favorable climate for employees today, with more job vacancies than job applicants resulting in increasing salaries. Despite the administration’s pro-union stance and increasing popularity, 2021 was another difficult year for the country’s unions, who represent just a tiny percentage of US employees and are struggling to increase their membership.
“Unions in the United States are in a considerably worse position than they were in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s,” said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Right now, there are possibilities to revive, but it is still an opportunity, not a reality.”
Union membership in the United States is at an all-time low.
Unions had fewer than 11% of employees in their ranks by the end of 2020, nearly half the proportion of US workers in 1983, when the Labor Department began monitoring the statistic.
And, although that proportion was somewhat higher than a year ago, it was only because non-union employees lost employment at a little greater rate than unionized workers during the epidemic. In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of union members actually decreased somewhat.
The situation is somewhat better in the public sector, where approximately one-third of government employees, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters, belong to a union. However, just 6% of employees in the private sector are unionized. And altering it in a significant manner will undoubtedly be tough.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s unsuccessful effort to win an organizing election at an Amazon facility in Alabama was likely the most recent defeat. Less than 30% of workers at the warehouse chose to be represented by a union earlier this year.
Supporters of labor unions argue that this is proof that the odds are stacked against them in their efforts to organize companies.
“A significantly larger percentage of employees would prefer a union in their workplace,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government relations at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research tank that receives 17% of its funding from labor unions. “Amazon’s (AMZN) vote demonstrates how dysfunctional the system is.”
Reform of labor laws is being pushed.
Unions are pushing for labor law change via the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which proponents claim would level the playing field when it comes to representation votes. The bill was recently changed to include the name of Richard Trumka, the AFL-outspoken CIO’s and dynamic president who passed away a month ago.
Employers who are found to have infringed workers’ rights during an organizing campaign, such as dismissing them for supporting an organizing attempt, may face penalties of up to $50,000 under the law. The law also enables the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to compel an employer to recognize a union if the NLRB determines that management tainted the election and a majority of workers have signed cards expressing their support for a union.
Despite the fact that the bill has cleared the House and has almost all Democrats in the Senate as cosponsors, it will be impossible to pass it without removing the filibuster. Parts of the plan may be incorporated in budget measures that only need a simple majority of senators to succeed, according to supporters.
Opponents of the bill believe that, despite the difficulties of passing it, they are worried that portions of it will pass in the Democrat-controlled Congress. Despite the fact that unions represent just a small percentage of workers, Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which opposes attempts to force employees to pay union dues if they disagree, said unions still hold enormous influence in Washington.
“They have power well in excess of their numbers,” he added. “They’re a political force to be reckoned with. It’s just not accurate to claim that the odds are stacked against them. They’ve got the Democrats on their side.”
What Biden’s victory means for labor
President Biden’s victories for labor have been low-key but significant, such as placing union-friendly nominees in control of the National Labor Relations Board.
Whether or not there will be a fresh unionization vote at the Amazon facility in Alabama is one of the choices the board will decide shortly. An NLRB hearing officer agreed with union complaints to many of Amazon management’s activities during the last ballot, and suggested a fresh election last month.
One of Biden’s first acts after taking office on January 20 was to fire Peter Robb, the NLRB’s chief counsel, a powerful post little recognized outside of labor legal circles.
Robb, a long-serving management lawyer, is best known for being the main counsel in the landmark case in which President Ronald Reagan dismissed striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981, a move generally seen as a spark for management’s anti-union campaign.
When President Donald Trump appointed Robb general counsel in 2017, he said that he was dedicated to preserving not just workers’ rights to participate in union activities, but also their “rights to abstain from such actions.” The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, for example, viewed him as a champion for union opponents. Jennifer Abruzzo, his successor, had previously worked as a union lawyer.
Since then, Biden has appointed more members to the NLRB, giving Democrats complete control of the board.
“The NLRB decides a lot of things in terms of how labor law operates that doesn’t receive a lot of attention,” Colvin said. “When you go from pro-management to pro-union, that makes a huge impact.”
Rank-and-file opposition to Biden is growing.
Despite the union leadership’s partnership with many Democrats, Roper polls found that 40% of voters from union households voted for Trump in the 2020 election.
This is somewhat lower than the 43% who voted for Trump in 2016, and about the same as the percentage who voted for Republican presidential candidates in previous elections this century. According to the AFL-CIO, which polled union members rather than voters from union households, 37 percent of union members voted for Trump in each of the past two elections.
“The divide between union leaders’ agendas and the agendas of rank-and-file workers throughout the nation is widening,” Mix added.
Unions have long struggled to organize workers, but today’s new labor movement is built on an unlikely alliance between government officials and union bosses. The reason for this unlikely partnership is that unions are better off without the infighting of the past that plagued the American labor movement.. Read more about labor unions 2021 and let us know what you think.
This article broadly covered the following related topics:
- history of unions
- labor strikes
- what is a strike
- history of labor unions
- role of labor unions