The Democratic Party and the Labor Union Paradox

Democrats should love unions. But what happens when the relationship becomes complicated?

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka speaking after the 2018 Janus ruling restricting public sector unions. Source: WBUR

The Biden presidency has renewed a series of internal debates in the Democratic Party that had been subsumed during the years of resistance to the Trump administration. One of the strongest has been the party’s complicated relationship with labor unions. Democrats seem to love the idea of unions but have mixed feelings about how to help them. They have failed to unite behind a substantive program that would replenish labor’s strength in this country, such as the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act or a law lessening the impact of the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision.

At the same time, many Democrats have harshly critiqued decisions made by unions in various sectors. The party has struck back against union attacks on Joe Biden’s oil pipeline policies. Leading liberals such as Jonathan Chait have argued against the refusal of many teachers unions to support the resumption of in-person classes, especially after a CDC report urged school reopenings. These disputes pale in comparison to the liberal condemnation of police unions for supporting officers charged and sometimes convicted in shootings of African Americans across the country. The Democratic Party may be pro-union, but they are far from unequivocal support of the nation’s labor organizations.

Labor unions have had a symbiotic relationship with the Democratic Party for the past century. Democratic policies helped weave unions in the nation’s social fabric. The Wagner Act of 1935 established the National Labor Relations Board, which gave workers across the country the right to vote for a union in their workplace. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal helped protect unions from the existential threats of courts, conservative politicians, and state militias.

Unions then bolstered the party over the next five seven decades. They were a major reason for Democrats holding the House for 60 out of 64 years from 1931 to 1935. Unions provided large sums of money and an enormously successful get-out-the-vote operation for the party. In the 1950s, 35% of Americans were in a union, an organization type that fostered camaraderie and working together in order to achieve common goals such as electing Democrats.

But the relationship between unions and the party was never perfect. Unions are not political action committees. They have their own policies to implement and constituencies to follow. Democratic actions made unions more powerful and also increased the chances that those unions would take actions the party disputed. For instance, more money meant greater chances of corruption. The nation’s unions became embroiled in a number of organized crime scandals throughout the 20th century, most notably those involving the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa in the 1960s.

More importantly, by the 1950s unions had become a conservative force in American society. In The American Mind in a Conservative Age (1985), Richard Pells wrote that the relationship of business to labor had changed between the 1930s and the 1950s, from “pitched battles on the barricades with militant workers over wages and hours to quiet negotiations with labor leaders over fringe benefits and pension plans enshrined in long-term strike-free contracts” (Pells 55). Workers had made significant gains and did not want to lose them to other groups. Those groups, which included students as well as African Americans, became major power centers for the Democratic Party. When the party started moving to the left, the unions stayed behind.

The main departure point for union politics in the United States came in the presidential election of 1972. George McGovern was nominated by the party on an anti-war platform and was considered a radical by many Democratic constituents. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor group, declined to endorse him in that year’s contest against Richard Nixon. Nixon won in a landslide, and the country’s labor politics were never the same. The next two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, famously failed to deliver on labor’s major goals. Carter himself gutted the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, the strongest proposed pro-labor law of the 1970s. Barack Obama tried but also failed to stop the decline of labor unions’ power in the American political system, which accelerated in the decades up to and including his presidency.

There is a new Democratic president, and with that comes a reappraisal of labor’s role in the Democratic coalition. Democrats have to reconcile the ideas of political power, labor solidarity, and union independence once again. They must decide how to support and rebuild labor while also allowing labor unions to act on their own in the best interests of their members. Navigating this minefield doomed the labor policies of many of Biden’s predecessors. It remains to be seen whether it will tank his labor policies as well.

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