Modern Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have often sat out the political battle. Every Democratic president for decades, including Joe Biden, has said he favors a federal law to make it easier for workers to organize — and each of those presidents has failed to pass such a law. Democratic leaders in Congress also have not made labor law a priority. Nor have many Democratic governors. Jamelle Bouie, a Times Opinion columnist, captured this asymmetry when he wrote: “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.”
But events in Michigan this week raise the question of whether Democrats are starting to change their approach and devote more attention to strengthening organized labor.
WHY MICHIGAN MATTERS
On Wednesday, Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill repealing the right-to-work law that Republicans enacted in 2012. For the new bill to become law, the State Senate, which Democrats also control, would need to pass it and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would need to sign it, as she has signaled she will. Democrats gained control of the Michigan House and Senate in last year’s elections. If the bill did become law, it would be one of only a handful of repeals of any statewide right-to-work laws. “It’s a huge deal,” Jake Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington who has studied the issue, told me. Currently, 27 states have such laws, including most of the South and the Great Plains, as well as Indiana and Wisconsin. Whenever Republicans control both the legislature and governorship in a state, they typically push for a right-to-work law. Yet when Democrats have taken control of a state government, they have sometimes left the law in place, as was the case in Virginia a few years ago, Grumbach noted. The details of the right-to-work debate can be technical, but they’re worth taking a minute to understand. Above all, the laws mandate that nonunionized workers cannot be required to pay the equivalent of union dues, even if the union is negotiating pay and benefits on the workers’ behalf. Many contracts call for a company’s management and union to agree on pay and benefits for all workers in a given job category, regardless of their union status.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
- A New Inquiry?: A committee led by Senator Bernie Sanders will hold a vote to open an investigation into federal labor law violations by major corporations and subpoena Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, as the first witness.
- Whitney Museum: After more than a year of bargaining, the cultural institution and its employees are moving forward with a deal that will significantly raise pay and improve job security.
- Mining Strike: Hundreds of coal miners in Alabama have been told by their union that they can start returning to work before a contract deal has been reached, bringing an end to one of the longest mining strikes in U.S. history.
- Gag Rules: The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that it is generally illegal for companies to offer severance agreements that require confidentiality and nondisparagement.
A 20 percent Raise
Wherever you fall on this debate, the laws clearly have an impact. They lead union membership to decline, as more workers choose not to pay dues and instead take home more money in the short term. Eventually, the laws do enough to weaken unions that they disappear from some workplaces. In the long term, the decline of unions tends to hurt workers: A large recent study, consistent with other research, found that union members made about 20 percent more on average than nonunionized workers who were otherwise similar. The additional wages often came out of corporate profits, which explains why the decline of unions has contributed to rising economic inequality. The shrinking of unions effectively redistributes income from low- and middle-income workers to affluent investors.
(In a new Times Magazine essay about American poverty, the sociologist Matthew Desmond writes: “With unions largely out of the picture, corporations have chipped away at the conventional midcentury work arrangement, which involved steady employment, opportunities for advancement and raises and decent pay with some benefits.”)
Then there are the political effects of unions. They help turn out voters and focus voters on economic issues. That focusing role is significant because of a fact that I’ve often covered in this newsletter: Many working-class Americans hold progressive economic views while also being religious, patriotic and socially moderate.
When a labor union talks to these voters about economic policy, they become more likely to vote for a Democrat. When they are not in a union, they may instead be swayed to vote Republican by their evangelical church or Fox News. A 2018 academic study, comparing counties on either side of a state border, found that the passage of a right-to-work law reduced the Democratic Party’s vote share by about three percentage points on average.
The bottom line
The repeal of Michigan’s right-to-work law would be significant on its own, given the size of the state’s economy and its importance in presidential elections. It would also highlight a larger trend: The Democratic Party again seems to be emphasizing organized labor, as it did in the mid-20th century.
Biden may have failed to pass a federal law making it easier for workers to join unions, but he has repeatedly talked about their importance and included pro-union provisions in other bills. “He is paying more authentic attention to the needs of working people to have unions than the last three Democratic presidents have,” Michael Podhorzer, a former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., told me.