AFL-CIO: Unions aim to roar in 2020

Why We Wrote This

The idea of giving greater voice to workers may be gaining traction, and labor leader Richard Trumka links it not just to economics but also to concerns about the health of an increasingly diverse democracy.

Matt Orlando/The Christian Science Monitor
“Working people are rising to meet a moment in history,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told reporters at a Monitor Breakfast Aug. 29 in Washington.

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Despite its setbacks, or perhaps because of them, organized labor has an energy level that AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says he hasn’t seen before in his 50 years with the movement.

Unions are pushing for more than just lip service from presidential candidates, which is prompting a flurry of pro-labor proposals from Democratic candidates. Mr. Trumka, speaking at a Monitor Breakfast with reporters Thursday, sees that as a plus for the 2020 campaign. He and other labor leaders say their values are the same basic concerns that resonate with the vast majority of Americans: economic security, inclusiveness, and the principle of democracy.

It remains to be seen how successful unions will be in influencing the nomination process and election outcome. But new polling data from Gallup finds they have been gaining in public esteem, with their favorable rating now at 64%.

“Our nation’s being poisoned by hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics at the highest levels of government,” Mr. Trumka said. “Our labor movement is offering a path forward that’s lit by solidarity.”

In the coming presidential election organized labor looks set to wield influence in a way that never really happened in 2016. 

It’s not that union membership nationwide has rebounded. Rather, by its very travails, which in many ways echo the challenges working Americans feel in their own lives, the labor movement seems to be drawing fresh energy.

Polls show it has gained in public esteem. Despite setbacks in court and federal policy, unions have scored some wins in grassroots organizing and in state and local policies. And unlike in 2016, they are pushing for more than just lip service from any candidate that hopes to win their endorsement – prompting a flurry of pro-labor proposals from Democratic candidates.

If unions may be learning to roar again, labor leaders say one reason is that their values are the same basic concerns – over economic security, inclusiveness, the principle of democracy – that resonate with the vast majority of Americans.

“Kitchen-table economics are first and foremost” in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said Thursday, at a Monitor Breakfast with reporters in Washington. Americans “want somebody who’s going to change the rules of the economy to make the country work for workers.”

Behind all this are both financial and social shifts. On the economy, one widespread public concern is that the balance of power between workers and employers has gone off-kilter since the 1970s, and remains skewed even in today’s relatively strong job market. But the idea of a voice for workers also may be gaining wider resonance due to concerns about the health of democracy and the fabric of civic life in an increasingly diverse nation. 

“The union message is a powerful message,” says Paul Frymer, a professor of politics at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The union movement has declined” from its former size, but “the working class has not declined.”

Reaching out

In Mr. Frymer’s view, the labor movement is finding creative ways to reach beyond its own membership, using campaigns such as the Fight for $15 to be a crusader for all workers.

And the potential influence shouldn’t be discounted, he says, even though the union movement has declined in six decades from representing about one-third of workers to about 10.5%. 

“It’s still, as a group, huge,” Mr. Frymer says. “I mean, what other group has the size of unions? The NRA? Not close.”

For his part, Mr. Trumka said that in his more than 50 years of union involvement, starting with Pennsylvania mine workers, “I’ve never felt this much energy and determination from working people.”

In his opening remarks at the breakfast Thursday, he connected that energy to wider political currents, not just to concerns over pay, pensions, and worker safety.

“Working people are rising to meet a moment in history, because we know something is deeply, deeply wrong. Our nation’s being poisoned by hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics at the highest levels of government,” he said, referring pointedly to a rolling up of America’s welcome mat for immigrants, and to polling evidence that many Millennials have lost faith in democracy. 

“Our labor movement is offering a path forward that’s lit by solidarity,” he said.

New setbacks

Not all Americans are rallying to labor’s new roar, by any means. Many remain skeptical of the idea of more union representation as an essential answer to economic or other challenges. 

Even among union ranks, the theme of solidarity doesn’t mean lockstep unity on politics. And the labor movement isn’t immune to internal challenges – as spotlighted this week by FBI raids on United Autoworkers facilities and the homes of the current UAW president and his predecessor in a widening corruption probe. So it remains to be seen if labor will translate its rising energy into having a labor-endorsed nominee win the White House – let alone whether Democrats, if in power, will put a priority on new labor laws. 

Still, a Gallup survey released this week finds Americans’ favorable view of labor unions at 64%, approaching the highest levels seen in 50 years and up sharply from 48% during the Great Recession. 

Mr. Trumka said unions are growing, from the public sector (such as teachers) to large and small private-sector employers. The gains over the past few years haven’t meaningfully reversed the long-term decline, but they could represent a turning point.

For many workers, action on their behalf can’t come too soon. 

 “I am looking for a president who will support higher wages, strong unions, and trainings so we can provide better care,” says April Perales, a home-care worker in Las Vegas who struggles on $11 an hour to help provide for her family. That’s higher than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and higher than Nevada’s $8.25 floor, but still provides only about $23,000 to someone who works 40 hours a week.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has asked presidential candidates to “walk a day” in the shoes of ordinary workers, and recently Ms. Perales brought candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas out on the job with her. 

Pro-union or pro forma?

In the past, while capturing most union votes, the Democratic party has often failed to deliver significant pro-labor legislation, even when it has held both the White House and Congress, Mr. Frymer says. Other priorities take center stage.

Will this time be different? 

At least one change is that candidates on the left have begun rolling out more detailed plans than in the past, focused on worker empowerment.

Mr. O’Rourke, for example, has come out with a set of proposals designed to bolster unions.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has an “accountable capitalism” agenda that would make workers a significant force on corporate boards, among other things. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently laid out proposals that include radically changing the playing field, so that worker empowerment doesn’t hinge on gaining representation one employer at a time. His idea is to “establish a sectoral collective-bargaining system that will work to set wages, benefits and hours across entire industries, not just employer-by-employer.”

Similarly, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has embraced “multi-employer” bargaining, and stood alongside Uber drivers in California this month, arguing for union representation in so-called gig jobs where workers are often classified by companies as contractors rather than employees.

While it’s a matter of debate among economists, some researchers say the decline of labor unions has been an important causal factor in the stagnation of income that many workers have experienced. And many argue that reducing inequality of incomes could make the whole economy healthier, as working people spend more and are better able to advance their skills.

“Candidates seem to be much more wholeheartedly embracing labor unions ... than I have seen before,” says David Madland, a labor policy expert at the advocacy arm of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

“[We’re at] this moment where labor is very, very important to the political system, and is seen as part of the answer to our problems,” he says. 

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