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Why the Republican Party Wants to Destroy Labor Unions

The GOP sees unions and their supporters as enemies to be politically and economically destroyed.

Union activists and supporters rally against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case in Foley Square in New York City on June 27, 2018. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Union activists and supporters rally against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case in Foley Square in New York City on June 27, 2018. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

We are enmeshed in several “existential crises” that Trump and the Republicans have exacerbated – climate change; threat of nuclear war; US democracy; and the Covid-19 pandemic.  However, there is at least one other “existential crisis” that is most often overlooked – the very existence of unions as an effective representative of working-class interests is at risk. Trump and the Republicans have launched a broad offensive involving all three branches of government to undermine the legal and civil foundation of organized labor: the right to be represented by a union and to collectively bargain for wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Four more years of Trump could result in the utter demise of the labor movement and the immiseration of a large portion of workers while furthering the concentration of income, wealth and power among a corporate and billionaire elite. This is not to say that Biden and the Democratic Party are the second coming of FDR and the New Deal. However, Biden and the Democrats are not out to destroy unions and, at the very least, will blunt the corporate/Republican anti-union crusade. And, at best, Biden and the Democrats will enact pro-worker legislation to the degree that unions and progressive groups are mobilized and activated. While the Democrats represent the possibility of pro-worker legislation especially if pushed by mass mobilization, Trump and the Republicans are out to destroy unions no matter what we do.

In a series of three articles, I will examine the anti-worker offensive launched by the Republican Party and President Trump as well as the alternative offered by the Democratic Party and Biden. This first article will analyze the reasons why the Republican party has declared a war against unions. The second article will examine the two-pronged offensive launched by President Trump and the Republican Party against unions; namely, stacking the deck by appointing proven anti-union ideologues to key positions and rigging the rules by enacting anti-union/pro-corporate policies. The final article will describe Biden’s stated policy positions in relation to labor and propose a number of recommendations for union supporters to mobilize not only to defeat the anti-union Trump led Republican Party but also to ensure that a Biden administration follows through on his pro-worker promises.

While these articles focus on the attack on workers’ rights and the promotion of corporate power, they are in no way meant to take away from the importance of the other crises and issues we face – the struggle for workers’ rights is inextricably linked to the struggle for civil, human and economic rights; a clean and healthy environment; an equitable distribution of income, wealth and power; and the creation of an effective and functioning democracy.

The GOP Wants to Destroy Unions

The Republican Party has historically been a bitter opponent of labor unions. Since the New Deal, Republicans have consistently supported efforts to weaken unions by eliminating or eroding statutory protections for the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Most famously, Republicans initiated and overwhelmingly supported the Taft Hartley Act which weakened unions by prohibiting many of the tactics that made unions formidable during the 1930s and 1940s. President Reagan launched another attack against unions when he broke the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) during his first term and legitimized the use of non-union “permanent replacements” for striking union workers. As will be examined in the next article, President Trump and the current Republican Party have taken this anti-union crusade to new heights. 

Big Business funds – and therefore controls - the Republican party. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, big business invested $20.1 billion in federal campaign contributions from 1990 through the first half of 2020. Republicans received 57% while Democrats received 43%. Business trade associations including the powerful US Chamber of Commerce gave 84% of their campaign contributions to Republicans and just 16% to Democrats. A 2019 report examining the donations of the CEOs of the top 1,500 publicly traded companies from 2000-2017 found a strong bias in favor of Republicans: 57.7% donated to Republicans, 18.6% to Democrats, with the rest leaning toward neither party. Even though big business does give billions of dollars to Democrats and thus has a lot of power within the Democratic Party, big business gives many billions more dollars to the Republican Party which it dominates. Meanwhile, unions invested just $1.6 billion in total campaign contributions from 1990 to 2020 – 91% of which went to Democrats.

Big Business Wants to Destroy Unions – therefore, the Republican Party Acts to Destroy Unions. Big business does not overwhelmingly fund the Republican party for altruistic reasons – there is a quid pro quo. And part of the deal is that the Republican party must follow the lead of big business in opposing unions

  • Unions form the largest civil institution that serves the interests of working people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions represented 16.4 million workers or 11.6% of the employed workforce in 2019. While this percentage is far lower than 1983 when unions represented 23.3% of the workforce, it is still a very large block of voting age Americans with shared interests and organizational connections. Union households represent an even larger share of the national electorate: according to CNN exit polls, union households represented 18% of the national electorate in 2016 – and much larger shares of voters in key swing states such as 28% of Michigan voters in 2016
  • Unions advocate policies opposed by Big Business and oppose policies advocated by Big Business. Unions have initiated and/or provided critical support – while Big Business and Republicans generally opposed - the eight-hour day, the five-day workweek, overtime, minimum wages, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, occupational safety and health regulations, paid family leave, the expansion of governmental programs aiding lower income workers and much more. Unions also have strongly opposed many of the policies advocated by big business including tax cuts that disproportionately favor corporations and the wealthy; the elimination or erosion of worker, environmental and consumer protections; the elimination of limits on the amount of legal campaign contributions by corporations and wealthy individuals; the privatization of crucial government services and agencies such as social security, the post office, public education; and much more
  • Unions force corporations to share some of their gains and power with workers. Union-represented workers on average have higher wages and better benefits than non-union workers. According to the BLS, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $1,095 in 2019, while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $892. Thus, union workers make almost $10,600 more a year than non-union workers. Moreover, according to another BLS report, union represented workers have substantially greater access to health, pension, paid time off, and other benefits. Corporations do not appreciate the higher wages and benefits obtained by union represented workers because they cut into profits, even though union workers are more productive than non-union workers. But corporations really do not like unions because they reduce management power over the workplace. For example, union represented workers obtain the contractual obligation of due process and just cause for discipline and firing. Union workers have representation throughout a contractual process to determine whether an employer has just cause for discipline or firing. Non-represented workers are “at will” and do not have such protections: they can be fired for basically any reason except those few instances protected by law such as race, gender, disability and religion
  • Unions reduce income inequality. A recent study by three Princeton University economists found that unions reduced income inequality in the United States, not just for union members but for the entire distribution of workers and wages. An earlier study by sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld had a similar finding, that “unions not only equalize union members' wages, they also equalize the nonunion wage distribution by threatening union organization and buttressing norms for fair pay. We found strong evidence that unionization rates in detailed industries for geographic regions are positively associated with wage equality among nonunion workers.”

The Republican Party also opposes unions in order to weaken the Democratic Party. Obviously, the Republican Party competes with the Democrats for votes and thus positions of political power. Consequently, Republicans will do all they can to weaken the Democrats which makes unions a prime target

  • Unions are a core constituency of the Democratic Party. As previously mentioned, unions directed 91% of their campaign contributions to Democrats from 1990 through the first half of 2020. In presidential elections, 60-66% of union households have historically supported Democratic presidential candidates – except for 2016 when just 53% voted for Clinton while 42% voted for Trump (as compared to non-union households which voted 46% for Clinton and 48% for Trump). Unions also supply thousands of volunteers to canvass neighborhoods and get out the vote. These on-the-ground efforts are probably more important than labor’s direct cash contributions
  • Unions are a more powerful force for progressive policies than the Democratic Party. A Nation article details research that shows the critical impact of unions on policy and the Democratic Party.
    • Political scientists Benjamin Radcliff and Martin Saiz found that the strength of unions in particular states is a more powerful determinant of liberal policy than the power of the Democratic Party in those states.
    • Political scientists Thomas Volscho and Nathan Kelly found that unions exert a more powerful influence on the share of income going to the 1 percent than does the share of Congress that is controlled by Democrats
    Other research also suggests that unions increase voter turnout, and that this effect is strongest for workers of color. More recent work on the impact of Citizens United finds that its effect on policy liberalism was muted in states with more powerful unions
  • By weakening unions through “Right to Work” laws, the Republican Party weakens the Democratic Party. The Republican Party has championed Right to Work laws as a means to weaken labor unions. Unions are required by law to collectively bargain for and represent all workers in their bargaining units whether they are members or not. However, right to work laws prohibit unions from collecting payments from all these workers to help pay for the cost of bargaining and contract administration. In other words, workers represented by unions can refuse to help pay for the costs the union incurs to represent them. Union supporters call such workers “free riders.” The clear intent of such laws is to reduce union revenue, the number of members and, thus, to weaken unions. And that is exactly what happened. For example, from 2012 (the year before Right to Work was adopted in Michigan) to 2019, the 14 major public and private sector unions lost 130,000 members (16% of their membership) and $20 million in revenue. Wisconsin adopted a bill that significantly curtailed the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers in 2011 and adopted a right to work law in 2015. The combined impact of these laws has been significant: from 2010 to 2019, Wisconsin union membership declined by 137,000 or 39%.

But the impact was not just felt by unions. A major study examined the impact of Right to Work laws not only on unions but also on the Democratic party:

  • Right-to-work laws reduce Democratic presidential vote shares by 3.5 percentage points.
  • There are similar effects in US Senate, US House, and Gubernatorial races, as well as on state legislative control
  • Turnout of union members is 2 to 3 percentage points lower in right-to-work counties after those laws pass
  • The share of blue-collar workers reporting a get-out-the-vote contact declines by 11 percent following the passage of right-to-work laws
  • Total campaign contributions from all unions falls by 2.5 to 3 points

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The 3.5% reduction of union presidential votes probably cost Hillary Clinton the presidency: she lost Michigan by just 10,704 votes, a margin of just 0.23% and lost Wisconsin by just 22,748 votes or a margin of just 0.7%.

Republican party voters are primarily located in states with an anti-union history. The strength of the Republican party is centered in states that have adopted anti-union policies such as the “right to work” laws described above. It is no surprise that the Republican Party launched, and corporate donors funded a major effort to extend right to work laws to “fair share” states. Since 2010, six additional states controlled by Republicans passed Right to Work laws for a total of 27 states altogether. These 27 states accounted for 83% of the current crop of Republican senators; 82% of Trump’s total 2016 electoral college votes; and almost 70% of the total number of Republican representatives.

The Democratic Party Is Much Better on Labor Issues Than the Republican Party

The Democratic Party is not a labor party. Unions form an important constituency of the Democratic Party in terms of funding, voting and providing the volunteers needed for canvassing, phone banking and getting out the vote. Ironically, the Republican Party recognizes the importance of unions to the Democratic Party more than the Democratic Party. And, Big Business provides billions of dollars in support to corporate Democrats – a significant source of Democratic funding though much less than the contributions to Republicans. The importance of corporate money and influence has pushed many Democrats toward policies that aid corporations and hurt workers. Two examples illustrate the power of corporations in the Democratic Party. First, Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama failed to prioritize labor law reforms that would have assisted unions in their fight with corporations and would have strengthened the Democratic Party. These bills failed because they were not prioritized by the Presidents and the Senate filibuster rule that gave outsized importance to Senators from anti-union, especially southern states. Second, President Clinton pushed through NAFTA and the China trade deals that led to the combined loss of 4 million jobs – many of which were good union jobs. Clinton was able to push these policies through Congress with the support of most Republicans and despite the opposition of most Democrats. President Obama attempted to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, called NAFTA on steroids. However, he was thwarted by opposition from labor, environmental, consumer, civil rights and religious groups – and most Democratic members of Congress.

However, despite all of that, a higher percentage of congressional Democrats are now more pro-union than ever. This is the result of the extinction of anti-union/pro-segregation Southern Democrats who have now become Republicans and the expansion of voting rights to Black and Latinx citizens who are more pro-union. Conversely, Democrats strengthened their hold in pro-union states as pro-union Republicans disappeared. Consequently, Democratic support for labor law reform has steadily increased among Congressional Democrats over time. For example, Obama – despite the issues noted above – appointed very pro-union individuals to the NLRB who issued many pro-union rules. Not one congressional Democrat supported the Republican led drive to roll back many of the new NLRB rules in 2015 when the Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. This pro-union solidarity among Democrats prevented a Republican override of Obama’s veto of the legislation. And when Republicans did roll back a number of Obama era pro-labor rules when they controlled both houses of Congress, not one Democrat supported the effort. This entire trajectory was described in an interesting article by Nathan Newman who concluded, “There is [Democratic] unity in defense of labor interests in the modern Democratic Party that was nowhere to be seen during the New Deal era.”

Democrats, despite Republican opposition, were responsible for passage of civil rights, age discrimination, disability rights, pregnancy discrimination, occupational safety and health, and the Family and Medical Leave acts. State laws in Democratic states are much more labor-friendly than those in Republican controlled states.

The point here is not that the Democratic Party is a labor party – it is not. And it is clear that our entire political system is dominated by corporate money. However, it is also clear that Democrats are much more pro-worker than the Republican Party. Indeed, as the next article will show – the Republican Party has launched an offensive to debilitate unions – an offensive led by President Trump, Republican majorities in the Senate and the federal judiciary and officials in Republican controlled states.

The Bottom Line

The Republican Party sees unions and their supporters as enemies to be politically and economically destroyed. The Democratic Party will not destroy unions and actually provides the possibility to assist unions in representing the interests of working people. Note to union supporters: act and vote accordingly.

Kenneth Peres

Kenneth R. Peres retired as chief economist of the Communications Workers of America. Formerly, he served as economist for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Montana House Select Committee on Economic Development, and the Montana Alliance for Progressive Policy. Ken has held teaching positions at the University of Montana, St. John's University, Chief Dull Knife College, and the City University of New York. He obtained a PhD in economics from the New School in New York City.

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