The Future Of Pro-Union Politics
How changes in the political environment may have made unions more powerful than the Democrats themselves.
One of the most remarkable developments in left-of-center American politics in recent years has been a renewed appreciation for organized labor. After years of being ignored at best and treated with outright distrust at worst, it now seems as if everyone, from environmental activists to liberal intellectuals to even the White House, is now centering the cause of unionism in everything they say. Some of this resurgence is simply a result of changes in material conditions: in the grand scheme of things, it would be stranger if the high income inequality and low wage growth in the modern American economy didn’t provide fertile ground for organized labor. Things like Starbucks unions are very much a product of our times and should be expected to continue to grow.
But much of this renaissance, especially at the elite level, is simply strategic. Since Donald Trump’s stunning victory in 2016, mainstream liberals have begun to look at support for organized labor as something of an electoral panacea for all of their woes with northern working-class voters. By re-asserting their alignment with the institutions that once powered the Democratic Party to victory after victory in industrial heartlands, they hope to bring some of the magic back to the elections of today. And just as past obsessions with suburban soccer moms served to move the party to the right, this renewed focus has measurably moved the party left on a number of economic issues. From their attitudes towards federal spending to the personnel on the National Labor Relations Board, the Biden administration has clearly broken from the New Democrat consensus of the Clinton and Obama years.
But how well-founded is this strategy? If you were to look at the results of elections since 2016, you’d find a body of work that can be described as middling at best. Despite their newly realized efforts, working-class and rural areas have continued to become more Republican with every passing year. While simultaneous pro-Democratic trends in wealthy suburbs have allowed Democrats to remain competitive, even dominant, in midwestern swing states, they still have yet to even reassemble their old coalitions. Even their absolute best candidates still struggle to obtain the level of working-class support that Barack Obama saw just ten years ago. Given that this has happened despite years’ worth of effort on the part of Democrats to repair their image as the pro-worker party, there have been no shortage of skeptics ready to declare that we live in a post-materialist reality. In their world, TikTok and Facebook have hypnotized the working class into no longer caring about the causes that once greatly animated their politics, making unions a dead issue.
Unfortunately for them, the exact opposite is true. For proof, just look back ten years ago, when Ohio and Michigan saw major confrontations over workers’ rights. These battles took drastically different forms and occurred across drastically different timeframes, but they ultimately told the same story. Even though Democrats may not benefit from them, the issues of workers’ rights are still very much alive. Pro-worker policies win, and they win across party lines. After decades of decline, unions have re-emerged as a powerful political force—so powerful that their influence may very well outstrip the two-party system entirely.
Context: The earliest election on this list, Ohio’s 2011 vote on an anti-union law signed by then-Governor John Kasich provides our first glimpse at a set of themes that will show up again throughout this article. For much of its modern history, Ohio was a swing state among swing states with moderate politics to match. While it had often leaned towards the Republican Party in statewide races, the state was never fully conservative on every issue. This was, and is, especially the case regarding the rights of labor. As put by the inimitable D.J. Byrnes in his publication, The Rooster, “Despite Ohio’s regressive nature, we are a vehemently pro-union state. There is no Right-to-Work. We respect the concept of ‘prevailing wage.’ These are things the unions want to keep in place.”