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Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hold a rally at the Richard J. Daley Center plaza on February 26, 2018 in Chicago. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Behind the Rise in Union Support—And the Challenge Ahead

The inequities leading to the current moment largely derive from the policies of neoliberalism, a model of unfettered capitalism.

Chuck Idelson

Reports of the biggest rise in public support for unions in a half century is an encouraging response to the chokehold the policies of neoliberalism have held over U.S. workers for decades that led to a staggering inequality, the weakening of unions, and facilitated the ascendancy of the right.

Assaults on workers and unions have a long history in the U.S., dating back to the brutal, forced labor of slavery and racialized capitalism, and the exploitation of industrial workers and state and private contractor violence on striking workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It should also serve as a signal to Democratic Party strategists. Commitment to the growth of unionization is an essential component of a multi-racial, working class coalition needed to fight off the rise of what President Biden calls the threat of "semi-fascism" from the Trump cult's acceptance of repressive legislation and political violence, and a shift toward a more humane public commons.

A new Gallup poll shows 71 percent of Americans now approve of labor unions, the highest mark since 1965, concurrent with a huge wave in union organizing. Gallup also noted a 57 percent leap in union election petitions filed during the first six months of fiscal year 2021.

During the first half of this year, unions won 639 NLRB elections, the highest total in nearly 20 years, bringing a union voice to 43,092 workers, more than double the prior year.

That surge is most evident in the widely celebrated union campaigns in such prominent consumer names as Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe's, REI, Chipotle. It has also included registered nurses at hospitals in a wide array of states, including Maine Medical Center in Maine, Doctors Hospital of Manteca in California, Longmont Hospital in Colorado, and Coral Gables Hospital in Florida, among others, the past two years.

Less reported was a deeper dive behind the reversal of antipathy toward unions long fanned by corporate and right-wing institutions and media, and enforced by their acolytes in Congress, state legislatures, and the courts.

The success of that war on unions could be seen in the election of candidates whose war chests were fattened by corporations and the super-rich thanks to the Supreme Court's evisceration of campaign financing limits, and the proliferation of anti-union legislation, such as the spread of so-called "right to work" laws, and the gutting of worker rights under federal law primarily under Republican administrations and a reactionary majority on the Supreme Court.

Assaults on workers and unions have a long history in the U.S., dating back to the brutal, forced labor of slavery and racialized capitalism, and the exploitation of industrial workers and state and private contractor violence on striking workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the inequities leading to the current moment largely derive from the policies of neoliberalism, a model of unfettered capitalism first concocted by an Austrian and University of Chicago economist in the 1930s influenced in part by reaction to Keynesian economics and New Deal programs.

In the U.S. neoliberalism was updated by rightwing economist Milton Friedman and fully weaponized by a host of far-right, libertarian economists and their corporate and political allies as public policy, from the early 1970s.

It was intended to reverse New Deal achievements, the expansion of unionization, and the gains of the Civil Rights movement. It was also influenced by an infamous memo by future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell in 1971 for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging a more vigorous corporate counter revolution.

Neoliberalism, as Robert Kuttner has written, "relied on deregulation, privatization, weakened trade unions, less progressive taxation, and new trade rules to reduce the capacity of national governments to manage capitalism. These shifts have resulted in widening inequality, diminished economic security, and reduced confidence in the ability of government to aid its citizens."

As corporate profits skyrocketed, and the wealthiest of the wealthy got richer, the consequences were devastating for working people, especially for Black, Latino and other communities of color. Today three people now own more wealth than the bottom half of American society. CEOs are paid times 350 times more than their average worker.

The stock portfolios of the top 1 percent are worth $23 trillion. Since 2009 the wealth of U.S. billionaires has mushroomed from $1.3 trillion to $4.7 billion but the national minimum wage remains frozen at $7.25 an hour. And membership in unions, clearly identified by their corporate and political adversaries as a key impediment to this massive shift, plummeted from 35 percent of all workers in the 1950s to about 10 percent today.

Though most identified with the right, many Democratic politicians were complicit, or at best bystanders in neoliberalism and its disastrous trend. Too many took unions for granted, as funders and foot soldiers for electoral campaigns, while offering minimal support for challenging the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism or confronting anti-union employers and their growing industry of union busting consultants and strike breaking firms.

As President, Jimmy Carter embraced austerity and deregulation. But it was Bill Clinton who went full board with the corporate friendly NAFTA agreement, lifting more financial industry regulations than Reagan or Bush, and a savage assault on welfare recipients.

Carter, Clinton, and Barack Obama de-prioritized and rapidly abandoned major labor legislation to reverse key elements of the virulently anti-union Taft-Hartley Act and restore the intended role of labor law to protect worker and union rights, not function as a permission slip for corporate misconduct.

By contrast, Biden, has worked to undo some of the damage, with legislation to create green and infrastructure working class jobs, and a social insurance expansion of Medicare in drug pricing limits. Arguably the most pro-union President since Truman, Biden has aligned with labor through federal labor board appointments and open encouragement of union organizing drives.

The biggest test will be if Democrats can maintain and increase their majority in the Senate in the upcoming election, abolish the filibuster and move the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act bill—and other essential stalled legislation—through the Senate to Biden's desk. The PRO Act would blunt some of the most routine employer harassment common in union campaigns. And it would set real penalties for anti-union corporate employers who wantonly violate worker's democratic rights even after they have won a union election, as Starbucks, Amazon and dozens of less prominent employers have done.

Citing Gallup and other polls, Washington Post columnists Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent note "the time seems ripe for Democrats to amplify the case for unions."

Another survey commissioned by a coalition of advocacy groups found that by a whopping 56 to 37 percent margin, voters would favor a Democratic candidate who supports unionization over a Republican who opposes them. Further, a recent Pew Research Center poll, 58 percent of Americans said the decline in union membership has been bad for the country, and 61 percent said it has been bad for workers.

What the workers, particularly those organizing in low wage service and retail sectors, see is the enormous disparity in survival living conditions. As the AFL-CIO has analyzed, union workers' wages are 11 percent higher on average than for their non-union counterparts. Union members are more likely to have employer-paid health coverage and pension plans, access to sick pay, and a voice on the job on workplace conditions and safety.

The economic benefits are even more apparent on race and gender. Black, Latino and women union workers are paid 26, 39 and 23 percent more respectively. Union contracts are also far more likely to provide protection from unfair discipline, as well as discrimination based on race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity.

It was the rise of unions and sweeping organizing campaigns in the private sector in the 1930s and '40s, and later in the 1960s and '70s in the public sector, that built the labor movement, and created unprecedented improvement in living conditions for working families in the 1950s and '60s.

The present moment offers seminal opportunity for a renewed growth of the labor movement and a commitment to the broadest public interest of the entire working class, and economic security for all with a concurrent united front for saving democracy and promoting racial, gender, LGBTQ, and immigrant justice. Will Democratic leaders fully encourage that movement? That is a question for our time.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Chuck Idelson

Chuck Idelson

Chuck Idelson is the Communications Senior Strategist for National Nurses United, the nation's largest union and professional organization of registered nurses with 175,000 members.

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