The Slatest

Democrats Lean Into Labor Issues

RACINE, WI - FEBRUARY 24:  Supporters of Randy Bryce attend a rally on February 24, 2018 in Racine, Wisconsin. Bryce, a union ironworker, is hoping to defeat House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to represent Wisconsin's 1st district.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Union supporters at a rally in Racine, Wisconsin. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Senator Bernie Sanders and a group of potential Democratic presidential contenders including Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand are introducing the Workplace Democracy Act, a major labor bill updating the 1935 National Labor Relations Act with new provisions on organizing rights and the gig economy. From the Washington Post:

The bill would allow employees to form a union by a majority sign-up process, rather than an election (which proponents say heightens the risk of employer meddling); require companies to negotiate with a new union within 10 days of receiving a request; mandate that workers in every state pay some dues to unions that represent them; and expand the law’s definition of “employer,” a hotly debated term as the country’s contractor workforce expands.

The bill would extend new labor protections to many workers employed as contractors in the “gig economy” including drivers for rideshare services like Uber. It would also ban state “right to work” statutes aimed at undermining unions, as Slate’s Jordan Weissman explained in September:

Right-to-work statutes allow employees to opt out of paying fees to the unions that represent them in collective bargaining. These laws are frequently blamed for draining organized labor of financial resources and have likely contributed to the decline of union organizing over the past several decades. States are permitted to enact the laws under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a landmark piece of union-busting legislation that congressional Republicans passed over President Harry Truman’s veto.

There’s no chance whatsoever that the bill will be considered with Republican control of the White House and Congress. But its introduction is a signal that the party may be leaning into labor issues for elections to come, and with good reason. The Democratic lead over Republicans in the union vote dipped by 10 points from the 2012 election to 2016, and Donald Trump won the most union votes of any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Clinton’s poor showing with union households did the most damage in the Rust Belt—in Ohio, she actually lost them to Trump by 9 points, according to exit polls. This partially reflects the gradual erosion of union support for Democrats over the past few decades, which has coincided with union members shrinking as a share of the electorate (from comprising roughly a quarter of voters in 1980 to 18 percent in 2016) and as a share of the American workforce (from comprising roughly a quarter of workers in the 1950s to around 10 percent today).

This has long been bad news politically for Democrats in the white working-class regions that have been at the center of political discussion since the election, and bad news for those workers themselves economically—declining union membership is widely considered one of the culprits behind middle- and lower-class wage stagnation. According to a 2016 paper from the Economic Policy Institute, wages for nonunion men working in the private sector without high school diplomas would be 5 percent higher if union membership were at 1979 levels. They would be 8 percent higher specifically for men without a college degree.

Those are the kind of figures Democrats will have to tout, along with the Sanders bill, if they want to rebuild labor support for November and beyond. The Trump administration has already done some of their work for them: support for the president has fallen about 15 points among union members over the past year according to Reuters.