Organized labor is the lifeblood of liberal politics in the United States. Unions backed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, gave critical support to the fight for the Great Society and powered Democratic political victories throughout the 20th century. Even now, the Democratic Party is generally strongest in states where organized labor has the most influence.
Despite this clear, partisan incentive for pro-union policies, too many elected Democrats have failed to make labor enough of a priority. This was true under Jimmy Carter, when union membership began its precipitous decline, as well as under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Other levels of government led by Democrats have also drifted away from unions.
Under pressure from moderate Democrats in key swing districts, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to bring the White House-negotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to the floor before the end of the year. Moderate Democrats believe they can more easily win reelection with a bipartisan accomplishment under their belts. But passing it would hand President Donald Trump a key political victory in the midst of impeachment proceedings, potentially undermining the entire Democratic ticket in 2020.
There’s also the labor question itself. Trump has sold the USMCA as a worker-friendly revision to the North American Free Trade Agreement. But union leaders and their Democratic allies say it needs stronger enforcement for labor rights and environmental protection. Rushing it now may undermine both. It’s also not clear that this would actually help moderate Democrats. Passing a bill only validates Trump’s oft-made claim that he’s an expert deal-maker, and as the presidential election nears, bolstering the president means you’re boosting his party.
Pelosi’s focus on trade comes at the expense of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a broad package of pro-labor reforms introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia and co-sponsored by 215 members, which Pelosi has put on the back burner. The PRO ACT would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union drives and prevent employers from delaying negotiations on collective bargaining contracts. The bill has already passed out of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and while it won’t become law under Trump, it’s still important — it shows the party’s commitment to the future of organized labor.
Pelosi’s narrow focus on the survival of moderate Democrats is understandable. Her majority rests on those moderates, who have followed her on impeachment despite real risks to their political standing. But the opportunity cost of that focus may be a chance to improve the vital relationship between labor and the Democratic Party.
Pelosi’s actions under a divided government are more defensible than those of Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, soon operating for the first time under unified Democratic control. With a liberal majority in the General Assembly, Northam intends to sign new legislation on gun control, voting rights and Confederate monuments (allowing localities to remove them without state authorization). He’ll push bipartisan redistricting and fully implement the Affordable Care Act, with a state-based health insurance marketplace. He even wants to explore ways to expand access to preschool education. But on labor, Northam prefers the status quo. Last week, he told a group of lawmakers and business leaders that he could not “foresee Virginia taking actions” that would include “repeal of the right-to-work law.”
“Right to work” is a bit of misnomer. Under “closed shop” rules, new employees at unionized workplaces must join the union or at least pay dues. The reasoning is straightforward. Under federal labor law, nonunion workers are covered by the union contract. But negotiations aren’t cheap — they take time and money. If everyone benefits, then everyone must contribute. “Right-to-work” laws essentially outlaw closed shops. Nonunion workers can claim union benefits without paying union dues or joining up, undermining the union in the process. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that “right-to-work” laws are associated with low wages and lower rates of unionization. Virginia, incidentally, was named this summer as the worst state in the country to work.
A 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research study of the political effects of “right-to-work” laws found that they reduced Democratic vote share in presidential, congressional and state legislative elections, reduced Democratic turnout, dampened labor contributions to Democratic candidates, reduced the number of working-class candidates and moved state policy in a conservative direction. Repealing “right to work” wouldn’t just be good for the state’s workers — including the black Virginians who propelled Northam to the governor’s mansion and saved him in the midst of a “blackface” scandal — it would strengthen the state Democratic Party and move policymaking to the left. It’s in Northam’s interest as the leading Democrat in Virginia to want to end right to work and open a path for union growth in the state. And yet, as a moderate, business-friendly Democrat, he won’t take the plunge.
Pelosi and Northam represent larger trends in Democratic politics: a long-term departure from labor that reflects on itself to undermine both. As unions get weaker, Democrats grow distant from organized labor. They are less likely to act on its behalf, which only makes the erosion worse.
Democratic inaction sits in stark contrast to the Republican Party’s ruthless assault on labor. Since 2010, five more states have passed “right-to-work” laws. In one of them, Michigan, public-sector union membership declined by 34,000. In another, Wisconsin, overall union membership is down 133,000 since the beginning of the decade. Both declines contributed to Republican victories in these states, including the 2016 presidential race. As Tracie Sharp, president of the conservative State Policy Network, told The Wall Street Journal in 2016, “When you chip away at one of the power sources that also does a lot of get-out-the-vote, I think that helps — for sure.”
Republicans and other conservatives know who their enemies are — they know that organized labor is a key obstacle to dismantling the social safety net. The question is whether Democrats understand that their fortunes are also bound up in the fate of workers.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.