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Last year’s strikes and direct action by workers, especially red-state public school teachers, have rightly been celebrated for injecting new energy into the American labor movement. Yet these mobilizations should not distract progressives from the magnitude of the challenges facing unions and their supporters in the Democratic Party. The next time Democrats regain control of Congress and the White House, they will need to put major reforms of federal labor law front and center. In the meantime, they ought to learn from conservative anti-union efforts about pursuing change through the states and developing a politically minded strategy for labor reform.
In particular, Democrats need to think about labor law reform not just as yet another area of public policy, but rather as conservatives do: as a set of reforms that can build durable political power that enables further policy wins on other issues. Before spelling out the specific lessons that the left can take from the right’s victories, it is helpful to step back to see just how differently Democrats and Republicans think about unions.
All-Out Republican Opposition versus Democratic Ambivalence
Over the past four decades, conservative political activists and donors, often bolstered by private-sector businesses, have fruitfully used public policy as a political weapon to weaken unions, especially public-sector unions. Crucially, these cross-state conservative coalitions, above all the conservative “troika” of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity, have never seen their anti-labor efforts as simply an end in themselves. Instead, right-wing advocacy against unions recognizes the inherently political role that the labor movement plays—and thus that efforts to weaken unions will eventually redound to conservatives’ long-term political victories.
The State Policy Network, a consortium of state-level conservative think tanks, has described this strategy to its donors in the following way: Efforts to curb the power of labor unions like right to work, cuts to public-employee collective bargaining, and restrictions on union political activities have the promise of “permanently depriving the Left [of] access to millions of dollars in dues … every election cycle.” Such efforts can “defund and defang one of our freedom movement’s most powerful opponents, the government unions,” while also “clear[ing] pathways toward passage of so many other pro-freedom initiatives in the states.”
In contrast to conservatives’ view of unions as being central to politics, mainstream Democrats have been much more reluctant to recognize just how important labor has been to their party. Support for labor rights is not unanimous among Democrats in the same way that opposition to unions is among Republicans.
One piece of evidence comes from the behavior of Democrats during the short window in 2009 and 2010 when the party enjoyed near filibuster-proof majorities in Congress and could have enacted labor law reform in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act. The different ways that the bill’s Republican and Democratic opponents spoke about their qualms is telling.
Like many of his fellow Republicans, Senator John Ensign of Nevada stressed that “if you know anything about politics, [the Employee Free Choice Act] is a game changer,” and that by strengthening the labor movement it could help Democrats to win elections “for the next 40 to 50 years.” Similarly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s main staffer working to defeat the bill observed that Democrats would “be foolish to waste the opportunity” presented by full control of the White House and Congress to bolster union power. In contrast, moderate Democrats expressed qualms about how the legislation might hurt a weak economy. “I have 90,000 Arkansans who need a job, that’s my No. 1 priority,” holdout Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln declared. Nowhere did these skeptical Democrats even acknowledge the bill’s political implications.
Moving from the federal to the state level, pro-union legislation is not typically part of the set of policies pursued by Democrats after they take control of state governments. Put simply, there is no liberal version of state-level right-to-work laws that Democrats have consistently pursued over the years on a scale that matches conservative efforts to retrench labor power.
A survey I conducted of over 300 state legislators and over 400 state legislative staff in the fall of 2017 underscores just how unified Republicans are in their opposition to unions—and how divided Democrats are over the sort of reforms that might bolster labor strength. I asked respondents about their perceptions of, and preferences for, different labor union rights. Fully 96 percent of Republican state legislators and staffers I surveyed opposed the right of unions to charge non-members dues or fees for collective bargaining and grievance protections—the fair-share fees that right-to-work laws bar.
By comparison, 70 percent of Democratic respondents said that they supported such fees, no small figure but still less than the virtual unity present among Republicans. I observed a similar reluctance among Democrats to embrace unions’ right to engage in the political process. Nearly a third of Democratic respondents in the survey said that they did not support the right of unions to make campaign contributions to political candidates, and around 15 percent of Democrats also opposed the right of unions to lobby government. Overall, state Democratic support for unions tended to be highest in the Northeast and Midwest and lowest in the South, with respondents in the West falling somewhere in between.
States with right-to-work laws are pictured in red on map.
The state legislative survey also illuminates the sources of the partisan differences in union support. For Democrats, support for unions was bundled with views on other social and economic issues: The more liberal a respondent was on issues like climate change, health care, abortion, or the minimum wage, the stronger their support for union rights. For Republicans, in contrast, opposition to unions was near-universal regardless of how liberal or conservative they were on other policies.
Democrats’ lack of support for the labor movement at the state and federal levels has come at a real cost to the party. Even in its weakened state, labor remains an important organizational support for Democrats and progressive causes. Few, if any, other associations have the same capacity to mobilize workers and represent their interests.
The example of Wisconsin is instructive. From 1999 to 2011, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce—organized business’s main voice in Wisconsin legislative politics—was roughly at parity with the state education association in its lobbying efforts. That balance of power changed in 2011 after the state passed legislation curbing collective bargaining rights and ending agency fees for nearly all public-sector workers (teachers included). Following the enactment of that bill, the power of Wisconsin’s public-sector labor unions, and particularly the Wisconsin Education Association Council, plummeted and the organization ceased to be a significant force on the state political stage.
“It decimated our ability to represent local and state government employees,” explained one veteran government union staffer. Another leader summed up the post-2011 situation more succinctly: “Do we have less boots on the ground? Yeah. Do we give the same amounts of money to the candidates? No.”
The Wisconsin story is mirrored in other states that passed right-to-work laws in recent years. Examining the passage of agency fee rollbacks across the states from 1980 to 2016, I find in joint work with Boston University economist James Feigenbaum and Brookings Institution fellow Vanessa Williamson that right-to-work laws disadvantage Democrats and liberal policymaking for years into the future. The passage of right-to-work laws, we find after comparing neighboring counties straddling state right-to-work lines, lowers Democratic vote shares and turnout up and down the ballot. Weaker unions mean that fewer working-class Americans are asked to participate in elections; campaign contributions from unions to Democrats also fall after the passage of those laws. After the passage of right-to-work laws, states are less likely to elect working-class candidates to state legislatures and Congress and state economic policy moves sharply to the ideological right. In one especially important example, we find that states are less likely to pass minimum-wage increases in the wake of right-to-work laws.
In short, it is hard to imagine either a sustained left or Democratic Party without a vibrant labor movement. As a result, labor reform ought to be a “day one” issue for Democrats that can then pave the way for other progressive legislative measures and eventual electoral victories. But to maximize the impact of such reform, progressives ought to pay close attention to four lessons from conservatives: organizing at the right levels of government, working across different arenas for policy change, connecting policies to individual citizens, and adapting reforms to local contexts.
Lesson 1: Organizing at the Right Level of Government
Spurred on by the rise of public-sector unions in state and local government in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative activists realized that a focus solely on Washington, D.C., would be inadequate and directed more of their efforts to the states. As ALEC’s executive director notes, states are responsible for setting important policies over a range of issues. When it comes to labor policy, it is states that oversee the ability of public-sector unions to organize, collect dues, participate in politics, and collectively bargain. States also have authority over important aspects of labor market policy, like setting and enforcing the minimum wage or creating paid sick or family leave programs. And states can also use their public-contracting activities to strengthen or weaken unions.
Facing mounting conservative cross-state victories, many progressives have shifted their energy to cities, especially on labor issues such as the minimum wage. That is understandable since liberal voters are increasingly concentrated in urban areas. Yet liberal urban initiatives have faced two big obstacles.
Progressives have found that cities have few levers for substantially bolstering union membership or political power since those powers rest at the state and national levels. Equally important, the conservative troika has responded to local-level progressive initiatives by vigorously encouraging state preemption—the passage of state laws that circumscribe what cities can do. A state with a minimum-wage preemption law, for instance, bars cities from passing their own minimum wages that exceed the state minimum. In 2000, fewer than 2 percent of Americans lived in a state preempting local minimum-wage hikes. By 2016, that share had increased to nearly six in ten Americans. The lesson is clear: Given the power of states, progressives cannot retreat to urban enclaves and expect to make much headway.
Lesson 2: Working across Policymaking Arenas
The American political system offers many different venues through which to pursue policy change—the courts, state legislatures, Congress, or regulatory agencies. Crucially, successes in one arena can unleash new resources that activists can use to push reforms in another one. In labor policy, conservatives have moved seamlessly from litigation to electoral and legislative politics and back again to the courts, all with the goal of reducing the power of labor unions.
The example of conservative efforts to cut union agency fees is instructive. The chair of ALEC’s labor committee argues that right-to-work in Michigan would not “have happened in 2012 without … Indiana’s passage of right-to-work,” as his group was able to show wavering Michigan Republicans that “in the election after Indiana passed right-to-work [Republicans] did not lose a single seat in the state Senate and even picked up nine seats in the House.” But since such measures are nonstarters in Democratic-controlled states with the most powerful public-sector labor unions, conservative activists had to work through the federal courts to impose binding rulings that applied nationally.
The 2014 Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn was the first significant victory on this front for conservatives. That case involved a group of workers who provided care to disabled individuals eligible for Medicaid benefits. Although these workers were technically employed by the patients they served, the workers were paid through the federal-state Medicaid program. As a result, the Illinois state government ruled that these workers should be considered state employees for purposes of union representation. A dozen other states followed Illinois in facilitating the unionization of home health aides. Some states extended the logic to cover other similar state-reimbursed employees, such as day-care providers, as well.
Because Illinois is not a right-to-work state, home health aides were required to pay fair-share fees to their unions even if they were not union members themselves. A group of dissenting workers sued the state to protest this requirement, and the case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court. Appealing to the Court’s conservative majority, the plaintiffs in Harris successfully argued that Illinois home health aides did not count as full-fledged state employees for the purposes of agency fees. That had the immediate effect of permitting dissenting non-members to opt out of paying agency fees to their union. But more ominously, Justice Samuel Alito’s controlling opinion signaled that the conservative members of the Court were skeptical about the constitutionality of agency fees altogether, inviting further challenges that would invalidate such fees for all public-sector employees.
The response of conservative anti-union activists to the decision nicely captures the effectiveness of pursuing the same goals across arenas. First, right-leaning cross-state organizations launched large publicity campaigns to educate home health aides about their right under the Harris decision to save money by leaving the union. Think tanks affiliated with the State Policy Network began broadcasting TV spots with sympathetic health aides seated next to the disabled family members they cared for, describing how the workers decided to leave their union to have a little extra money to spend on themselves and their loved ones.
Students and striking teachers hold signs at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall in Oakland, California.
But the most significant follow-up to Harris came in the form of Janus v. AFSCME, in which the Supreme Court ended agency fees for all public-sector workers. The next step laid out by conservative opponents of public-sector unions in Janus—including both the litigants and broader advocacy groups like the State Policy Network—is to sue unions for agency fees charged in the past, which might bankrupt many unions.
Lesson 3: Connecting Policies to Individual Citizens
The case of public-sector agency fees also underscores the imperative of continued investment in political organization and mobilization to connect policies to individuals and build power over time.The State Policy Network has billed the Janus decision as “the opportunity of a lifetime” to defund the public-sector labor movement. The Freedom Foundation has reportedly trained 80 canvassers to start knocking on the doors of public-sector workers in California, Oregon, and Washington to convince them to opt out of their unions. Affiliates of the State Policy Network in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are leading large-scale targeted opt-out campaigns with the support of the national network as well.
Progressive activists seeking to entrench their own labor policy victories would be wise to draw from this experience and not simply assume that a legislative or judicial victory signifies the end of a political battle. For policy changes to register effects, especially in the mass public, activists have to stay on the ground to show citizens how those policies affect their lives and connect the policies to concrete political actions. This means not only battling for the hearts and minds of public employees to encourage them to remain union members after Janus (as many unions have already done) but also pursuing a more proactive agenda after progressive policy changes, too.
Lesson 4: Adapting Reforms to Local Contexts
The final lesson that progressives can learn from conservatives involves taking advantage of varying political contexts to achieve the same policy objective in multiple states at once. As the State Policy Network points out in a “tool kit” for its affiliates, advocates should select “the best reform based on [their] state’s political and cultural environment. … Success does not hinge on a single reform tactic.”
To that end, the State Policy Network called for activists to pursue union recertification requirements (like those passed in Iowa and Wisconsin) in states that had “legislative majorities and executive branches that support union reform”; opt-out campaigns for private-sector workers (and beforeJanus, public-sector workers) in right-to-work states where conservatives lacked full control of the legislature and the governorship but where state laws permit SPN affiliates to request lists of public employees and union members through public-record laws; and right-to-work laws in states where conservatives enjoyed veto-proof majorities in the legislature and a strong ally in the executive who could stand up to the public backlash such a proposal would likely engender.
By tailoring their ambitions to the local political climate, the conservative troika was able to rack up additional wins that they would not have achieved pushing for all-or-nothing proposals. In addition, these incremental victories slowly chipped away at the power of organized labor across the country. That is because unions, and especially public unions, transfer revenue from blue states with stronger memberships to red states with weaker locals. Putting pressure on wealthier unions reduces the power and potential growth of their affiliates in less favorable political climates.
What Might a Power-Building Reform Agenda Look Like?
Turning the tide after years of conservative success in the states will not be easy. But just as right-wing opponents of public-sector unions learned from the unions’ earlier successes, so the unions and their supporters would be wise to learn from what conservatives have done.
Reformers ought to prioritize what I dub the ABCs: expanding access to unions and collective-bargaining agreements for all workers, broadening the benefits that unions can offer to members, and ensuring that unions can diversify their revenue beyond voluntary contributions from workers.
Under current law, workers have the option of joining a union if and only if they win a costly and time-consuming drive at their individual store, business, factory, or plant—an effort that their managers are all but certain to fight tooth-and-nail. And even if workers do win that election, their managers may never come to the table to negotiate a first contract.
Ideally, the United States would follow the example of western European democracies where unions negotiate contracts that apply to an entire sector or region regardless of whether the individual businesses in that sector or region are unionized. Such a reform would help raise labor standards for more workers than are reached by the current labor movement. It would also reduce employers’ incentives for opposing unions since they would be less likely to face competition from non-union firms in their industry. Some low-wage, anti-union employers might be driven out of business altogether, thus mirroring conservatives’ successful use of the law to put financial pressure on unions.
Beyond regional or sectoral bargaining, Democrats ought to take additional steps to facilitate union formation, like protecting unionization efforts as a civil right alongside workplace anti-discrimination law (as Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit have proposed) or by requiring that non-union employers hold regular elections to allow their workers to decide on union representation (as Benjamin Sachs has argued). Both measures would provide the political space for union organizers to do more to build grassroots interest in unions. Ultimately, however, all these changes in labor law will require congressional action, making them unlikely until Democrats have undivided control of the federal government. In the meantime, labor’s supporters should focus on state-by-state efforts to make progress.
Pro-labor state governments could expand their approaches to public-sector bargaining even in the absence of national reform by permitting or even requiring state governments to bargain over a broader set of outcomes with public-employee unions—what the Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown dubs “Bargaining for the Common Good.” Teachers unions, for instance, might bargain over classroom resources, institutionalizing the demands that many of their colleagues in “Red for Ed” teacher strikes made for higher spending on education and more instructional supports for students. State legislatures could also do more to build public- and private-sector unions into the administration of government programs and policies. For instance, state governments could contract with unions to enforce labor standards, provide training or certification programs, or conduct public educational and outreach campaigns for social programs such as Medicaid and unemployment insurance. Because of the federated structure of labor unions, efforts to bolster unions in very blue states could strengthen their position all across the country.
Hundreds of labor union members and supporters gather for a rally to protest the collective bargaining measures of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's administration at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison.
Many of these measures would broaden the benefits and services that unions offer to workers, too, which will be essential to boosting membership rolls in a context where unions can no longer charge agency fees. Ongoing survey research I am conducting with Thomas Kochan and William Kimball at the MIT Sloan School of Management suggests that American workers still value traditional collective bargaining very highly. But even in the absence of collective-bargaining rights, we found that workers would be willing to pay voluntary dues to unions that offered them valuable services and benefits. These include portable health insurance coverage and retirement savings opportunities for when workers move between jobs, as well as legal help with work-related and non-work-related civil issues like housing or immigration. Workers are also excited by the prospect of union-offered unemployment insurance benefits and job training.
These survey findings are further supported by additional research I am currently conducting with George Washington University political scientist Ethan Porter on teachers unions. Studying the Iowa education association, we found that teachers were most likely to try to cast a ballot supporting the recertification of their union when we reminded them about the valuable professional benefits and training opportunities offered by their association.
Unions already provide some of these benefits (like job training and professional development opportunities) on a limited scale, but much more could be done to expand the reach of existing programs and enable unions to offer other services—and especially to use those benefits as incentives in membership drives and union elections. Labor law reform should therefore free up unions to creatively use valuable workplace benefits to recruit and retain workers as dues-paying members.
Of course, not all benefits offered by unions will be equally persuasive to potential members, nor are they equally likely to maintain unions as organizations over time. Past research suggests that it is not enough for membership organizations to simply provide scarce and valuable benefits to build membership and political clout. Rather, the benefits have to be aligned with the organization’s core purposes and designed in ways to foster shared social identities.
Perhaps no other organization exemplifies this model for success more than the National Rifle Association (NRA). The key to the National Rifle Association’s historically potent grassroots membership is not just that the organization offers magazine subscriptions and discounts on gun-related products and services. Rather, as Northwestern University political scientist Matthew Lacombe has documented, these benefits “assiduously and strategically cultivate a distinct, politicized gun-owner social identity.”
The implication of the NRA experience for unions is that generic discounts on products are unlikely to attract substantial member engagement or foster worker solidarity. Instead, unions need benefits and services, like unemployment benefits or training opportunities, that tie in to the broader social identities that the labor movement is trying to cultivate. This mismatch between benefits and identity may explain why previous union initiatives to build membership through discount programs do not have much to show for their efforts.
Even as unions try to attract more members, they also need to move away from a dues-only model of raising revenue. One of the many ways in which unions in the United States differ from their peers in other countries is that American unions rely nearly exclusively on dues from their members (and in non-right-to-work states, fair-share or agency fees from non-members). This model is not sustainable for maintaining, let alone building, labor’s political clout. To be sure, some dues revenue is important for keeping labor unions accountable to their members, but a near-total reliance on dues has left American unions highly vulnerable to right-to-work laws and other agency fee cutback efforts.
Reformers thus need to expand the opportunities for unions to diversify their funding sources. This need is especially acute for public-sector unions, which face an immediate decline in revenue following the Janus decision—and so progressive labor reforms ought to start here.
The advantage to pursuing a benefits- and services-related strategy for building membership is that it provides a path for unions to expand both dues and non-dues revenue. For instance, unions might expand their training, certification, and professional development opportunities as a means of attracting members while also contracting with state governments to partially (or fully) fund those programs. Take the example of teachers unions, which already provide popular, high-quality classes, workshops, and trainings for educators to maintain and expand their classroom skills. Unions could contract with local and state governments to provide these classes on a fee-for-service basis—and these trainings could provide additional opportunities to pitch non-members on joining the union.
Unions should also find ways of monetizing the administration of other existing or new benefits that they might offer, such as unemployment benefits or health insurance and retirement savings funds. In many western European countries, unions derive substantial revenue from the investment and management of such social welfare funds. At one extreme, unions in several northern European countries such as Denmark and Sweden are responsible for administering unemployment benefits—so workers have a strong incentive to enroll in unions. congressional Democrats might consider giving states the option of pursuing a similar approach with jobless benefits.
Apart from a social benefits–oriented strategy, in their capacity as political organizations with extensive campaign and advocacy experience, unions might also consider charging parties or other interest groups for political support or consulting they could offer where appropriate and legal. And lastly, public-sector unions might follow the lead of the National Education Association and create new categories of membership for “allies” willing to make financial contributions to unions, especially around political advocacy. Such “ally” membership categories ought to be treated carefully (with more limited governance rights, for instance) but could help to bolster and diversify unions’ finances.
Regardless of the specific mix of proposals that reformers pursue, what is crucial is that Democrats learn to use policy as a means of building long-run political clout. Conservative lawmakers have not hidden their intentions in reducing the political power of unions. It is time for Democrats to be equally clear about reversing that process.