Month of Activism: Labor, Right to Work, and the Democratic Party

In the aftermath of President Trump’s Charlottesville remarks last August, a flurry of prominent business leaders including, but not limited to, the CEOs of Merck, Intel, Johnson and Johnson, General Electric, DOW Chemical, and Corning all exited Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. As resignations continued to be announced, Trump tweeted that he would be disbanding the council, sparing the administration further embarrassment. However, lost in the drama was perhaps one of the most important resignations of all: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Before Trump’s tweet, Trumka released a scathing statement of withdrawal, asserting that, “It’s clear that President Trump’s manufacturing council was never an effective means for delivering real policy that lifts working families, and his remarks today were the last straw. We joined this council with the intent to be a voice for working people and real hope that it would result in positive economic policy, but it has become yet another broken promise on the president’s record. From hollow councils to bad policy and embracing bigotry, the actions of this administration have consistently failed working people.”

With such a damning statement from the leader of the largest labor federation in the United States, it would perhaps come as a surprise to hear that in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, one line that has been repeated by pundits, party leaders, and grassroots activists alike is that the Democratic party lost critical support amongst working-class voters. By any measure, this statement is true: according to exit polls of the 2016 Presidential election, Democrats lost support amongst voters with solely a high school diploma or less and voters making less than $50,000 a year, with losses cutting across racial lines (although not evenly). The fact that the party of the New Deal lost ground with the working and middle classes to a candidate whose catchphrase for a decade was “you’re fired”, is rattling and should serve as a wake-up call. Democrats should be alarmed that the strong ties that once held working and middle-class voters together and within the Democratic party are fraying and that because the labor movement is losing critical ground, the fight against mass wealth and income inequality is in peril. To move forward, understanding the history of labor in the Democratic party and reinvigorating the movement should be top priorities for Democrats.

Since the signing of the National Labor Relations Act by President Roosevelt in 1935, the labor movement has been a key component of the Democratic party. The “Labor-Liberal” coalition enabled Democrats to dominate the executive branch and shift the center of American politics decisively in a progressive direction from the 1930s until the late 1960s. During that period, unions helped in supporting not only the elections of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, but also in strengthening the Civil Rights movement. However, this increased union presence soon faced backlash with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Since then, states have been allowed to pass “right-to-work” union-busting laws that outlaw (rarer) union shops and (more common) agency shops which require that employees join or pay fees to a union, respectively. As put by Berry Craig, a member of Kentucky’s AFT Local 1360, “[u]nder a right to work law, workers at a union shop can enjoy union-won wages and benefits without joining the union or paying the union a service fee to represent them. The idea is to weaken strong unions, destroy small unions and keep workers from organizing.” As unions become less effective, workers would leave and stop paying fees, thereby perpetuating a cycle of decline that helps employers and investors.

Furthermore, these laws have included racist ends. In 1961 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, speaking to the AFL-CIO convention saw this clearly, stating “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work,” adding, “the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.” After all, Vance Muse, a Texas businessperson and the founder of the right to work movement had infamously exclaimed, “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs!” For Muse and his allies, right to work would accomplish two important aims: busting unions and reinforcing Jim Crow. Consequently, the first wave of right to work legislation swept across the Jim Crow South.

While suburbanization, automation, shifts towards the service sector, and outsourcing have all played a role in bringing down the overall rate of unionization, right to work legislation has undoubtedly weakened the labor movement throughout sections of the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2017 report on Union Membership shows a strong correlation with right to work laws and low levels of unionization in a state. As more right to work laws were passed, states’ levels of unionization declined. The economic implications of such decline include not only a decrease in the middle class share of aggregate income but also an increase in the gap between the richest and the poorest in the United States. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the decline became a nosedive, the upwards socioeconomic mobility that had characterized America began to decline as well, changing the face of society as middle-class Americans had known it.

Unfortunately, while Conservatives have thoroughly grasped the extent of the damage that such laws do to the strength and cohesiveness of the Democratic party, Democrats and Liberals by and large have not. Of the 22 states without right to work laws, 18 voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 20 voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Of these states, Hawaii, with the second highest rate of unionization in the country, registered the highest percent of the Democratic vote of any state as well as the largest margin between Clinton and Trump. By contrast, Michigan and Wisconsin were surprise losses in 2016; since 2012 both had passed right to work laws. Some Democrats have already begun to realize this trend and the importance of labor: in his bid to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI-01), Union Steelworker Randy Bryce has not just campaigned on a pro-union platform but has unionized his campaign staff and plans to unionize his congressional staff if elected. He happens to be running surprisingly closer to Ryan than any other Democrat ever has.

All of this should serve as catalyzing evidence for why Democrats should reinforce the labor movement and vigorously fight against right to work laws as it looks to find its message going forward into 2018 and 2020. In the age of Trump, where faux populism and trickle-down corporate tax cuts are the order of the day, and the GOP platform includes a plank for “the right of states to enact Right-to-Work laws and [a] call for a national law to protect the economic liberty of the modern workforce,” Democrats have a unique opportunity to regain momentum amongst the working class and mobilize young voters. Unions are broadly popular, with 61% of Americans having a favorable view of them, and in particular 75% of millennials. The fights to raise the minimum wage, provide high-quality and affordable insurance, ensure paid family and sick leave, and decrease wealth and income inequality in the United States are all key items on the Democratic platform and they can all be aided by revitalizing labor everywhere.

Article By: Matthew Girardi