Alexander Jones: Whither, organized labor?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 1, 2022

For the first time in at least a decade-and-a-half, union activity is crackling across the country. Workers at such firms as Amazon, Starbucks, and other, less prominent companies are asserting their right to form collective bargaining units to claim a more just share of the profits that their labor helps create. Even in North Carolina, Amazon workers are fighting back against the company’s egregious labor practices with a unionization drive. This has got to be one of the most important breakthroughs for progressive politics since the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014.
The historic role of labor unions in sustaining the Democratic Party cannot be overstated. Since the wave of union organizing at defense plants under President Woodrow Wilson, organized labor has tended to stay loyal to Democrats. The pro-union Wagner Act signed by President Roosevelt sealed the foundation of this political alliance, which over the next 40 years would be known as the “New Deal Coalition.” Despite years of neglect from the neoliberal movement, union groups such as the national Firefighters Association played key roles in supporting the presidential candidacies of Joe Biden and John F. Kerry.
But unions have been in a steady decline since the Reagan Era. After peaking at 35%, union density in the American private sector has fallen to only 6% today. At the height of union vibrancy, even North Carolina, the most anti-union state in the country, had a union density rate of 9%. But unions continue to play a vital role in advancing progressive priorities. Workers in pro-union states earn on average $2,000 more than comparable workers in so-called “right-to-work states,” even after correcting for cost of living differences.  (As an aside, North Carolina’s low wages are not compensated by lower living costs. We have the 11th-lowest wages in the country, but living here costs a full 96% percent of the national average. We’re not cheap – we’re just poor.)

Unions have also made potent contributions to progressive politics in the Trump era. When Trump rolled out his abysmal cabinet choices, it was the nominees who faced union opposition who tended to face the greatest difficulty in winning confirmation. Unions defeated the virulently anti-labor fast-food executive Andy Puzder in his effort to become Secretary of Labor. While the unqualified billionaire donor Betsy DeVos did ultimately become Secretary of Education, teachers unions nearly succeeded in beating her confirmation as well. Other, equally toxic cabinet members won confirmation with ease.

Not only are unions vital to the progressive movement in the United States, but they’re also fairly popular, polling better in surveys of public opinion than the big businesses whose employees they represent. But restoring the bargaining power of labor will not be easy even in an economy where workers enjoy unprecedented leverage. Because Democrats lack the votes to pass the PRO Act, a sweeping measure aimed at easing the unionization process, hostile employers have far more resources to deploy in defeating drives than unions have in making them successful. Furthermore, most of the important political swing states, even deeply unionized Michigan, have anti-union (and misleadingly named) “right-to-work” laws.

Too many North Carolina workers remain deeply wary of what unions are and what they would mean if they took root in the anti-labor desert that is the Tar Heel state. While workers at one Boone Starbucks location successfully unionized just the other week, their colleagues at a different store in Raleigh, who had absolutely nothing to lose, still voted against organizing a collective bargaining unit. As they say, results may vary.

The Left desires to change the labor movement to meet the needs of today’s economy and its workers. Yet that very movement would also change the Left in turn. If progressives do succeed in rebuilding some sort of neo-labor movement, it will not merely represent an influx of supporters to the urban- and university-based progressives who now dominate the Democratic Party. Any new labor movement would be more working-class, more culturally conservative, less idealistic and more “Beer Track” than some elite activists would prefer. But that’s a small compromise to make in order to bring back the one institution that has historically succeeded in checking the oligarchical dominance of Wall Street and Big Business – and with them, the increasingly fascistic Republican Party.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at