The labor movement has long been a potent force for promoting a broad economic middle. Though no longer centered in auto and steel factories, unions continue to offer lower-income Americans a path into the middle class -- just ask a newly organized janitor, hotel worker, security guard, hospital paraprofessional, home-care worker, or warehouse, call-center, or food-service employee. In 2003, the Economic Policy Institute found that the wage premium for unionized jobs relative to comparable jobs is about 20 percent, and union workers are far more likely to have decent health and pension benefits as well as a voice at work. Unions are also the single most powerful lobby for good social legislation such as Social Security, Medicare, and college aid, helping anchor the middle class generally.
Unions are also central to electing Democrats. For two decades, Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO, has been providing the numbers with a regularly updated slide show to political candidates, operatives, donors, and activists. In 2010, even with turnout down, unemployment up, and the working middle class anxious and skeptical, union households voted Democratic by a margin of 60-to-38, only slightly below the 64-to-34 margin in 2008.
Comparable unorganized workers voted heavily Republican. In 2010, working-class (non-college-educated) whites from nonunion households backed Republicans by a devastating margin of 68 percent to 31 percent -- more than 2-to-1. But working-class white voters from union families cast their ballot for Democrats by 55 percent to 45 percent.
This stunning 24-point gap does not reflect some fundamental differences in the character of, say, truckers at nonunion FedEx versus unionized UPS drivers, or workers at unionized hotels in Las Vegas and nonunion ones in Phoenix. The different consciousness of union workers is the result of a shared experience of bargaining collectively to improve working life, coupled with union efforts on economic education and political campaigns. "Union workers have more solidarity, more leadership, and more understanding of economic issues," says Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
The union share of votes cast, though smaller than it once was, still matters immensely in swing states. In 2010, it was 26 percent in Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and 24 percent in Pennsylvania. Nevada's majority-unionized hotel and casino industries delivered an otherwise impossible re-election victory for Sen. Harry Reid.
Another of Rosenthal's slides extrapolates these voting propensities to show how a larger labor movement would transform American politics. Five million more union members, assuming that they voted roughly like existing members, would flip at least five Senate seats from Republican to Democrat and would flip a far larger number in the House. Ten million new unionists would produce something close to a Democratic lock on Congress.
Until the blowout of November 2010, the unions' ability to deliver votes for Democrats was growing stronger with every recent election. The rank-and-file Democratic vote increased from 54 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 1996 to 64 percent in 2006 and 2008, before falling back slightly to 60 percent in 2010. Unionization, even with a depleted labor movement, still provides Democrats with about 5 million votes they would not otherwise have. Several Democrats from swing states who narrowly won in 2006 will be up in 2012. Many would not have been elected in the first place, but for labor's strong support, including Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Montana's Jon Tester, Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, and Virginia's Jim Webb. The labor movement put about a third of a billion dollars into the 2008 campaign, and a quarter billion in 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and The Wall Street Journal. With spending at an all-time high in 2010, labor's numbers are most likely higher for the last election, and that's in addition to knocking on millions of doors.
But the labor movement has been steadily losing members in recent decades and is now down to just 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. "At this rate," says a leader of Change to Win, a coalition of four major unions, "there will be no private-sector labor movement in another 10 years." To counteract the decline, AFL-CIO and Change to Win are planning major campaigns, not just to unionize workers but to mobilize Americans on behalf of a broad middle-class agenda. Though details are still being debated, that agenda has to include jobs and major social investment -- the traditional tonic of the liberal-labor coalition updated for the 21st century.
Republicans and corporate elites are all too aware of what a stronger labor movement would mean. On the eve of President Barack Obama's election, Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, warned that enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would streamline union representation elections, "would make Republicans the minority party for the next 40 to 50 years." When it looked as if the Obama administration might make EFCA a priority, Randel Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, described the coming battle as "Armageddon." Business groups warned the White House to forget cooperation on other issues if they made a serious push for EFCA.
But while business lobbyists and Republican strategists are fully aware of what a stronger labor movement would mean for the Democratic Party as well as wages and benefits, their appreciation is not entirely reciprocated by Democrats. Early in 2009, the Obama administration made some fateful decisions. The president wanted common ground, not polarization. Health reform came first and required the collaboration, or at least not the active opposition, of major industries. EFCA had to wait.
Labor leaders report being told by the White House in early 2009 that if they could produce the votes, President Obama would gladly sign the bill, but he would not actively work Congress on its behalf. That stance effectively doomed the reform law, since at least six senators from states with weak unions and powerful business interests were disinclined to vote to break a Republican filibuster on EFCA. Obama is not unique. His is the third consecutive Democratic administration that benefited greatly from labor's voter-mobilization efforts only to respond with disinterest that effectively killed labor-law reform.
In January 2009, partly as a sop to the labor movement and partly to signal symbolic concern for the middle class, the president did create a task force on middle-class working families, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. But the task force has only two part-time professional employees, stages purely symbolic events, and is not taken seriously by other Cabinet departments. Such is the administration's unease about discussing class that a major debate ensued about whether to call it a task force on working families or a task force on the middle class. The ungainly final name was a hybrid of both.
If a stronger labor movement is so good for middle-class incomes and for the Democratic Party, what explains the Democrats' ambivalence? The problem is far more structural than personal, says Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America. Two factors are labor's declining membership and geographic concentration. Organized labor is not just a diminished share of the workforce -- its strongholds are geographically concentrated in New York, California, and a few Midwestern states. Democrats can't win without those states, but most senators and representatives neither appreciate unions nor have to answer to them politically.
"Democrats get that we're politically useful," Cohen says. "But I'm not sure that enough Democrats grasp the economic argument that collective bargaining allows the economy to build the middle class."
Says a senior union political strategist: "Democrats think that all the union has to do is endorse them, and that's all it takes. They don't understand that it takes a lot of effort and political education to convince voters what is in their economic self-interest. We have to work to get out people to support the Democrat -- often in spite of these Democratic candidates."
The shift from economic to social issues since the 1960s has also diminished labor's role. "After Vietnam, the civil-rights movement, and the emergence of issues like gay rights and abortion, the Democratic Party was reconstituted," says a senior labor leader. "There was a cultural revolt against the kind of society into which the older labor movement fit well."
"An increasing number of Democratic elected officials and their consultants come from the business and professional class," says an influential pollster. "They are successful individuals. They tend to identify more with the boss than the worker. Their view of labor is instrumental, antiseptic, and transactional. Labor is seen as a source of funds and votes -- I'll do this for you, if you do this for me.' But there's no real appreciation of what unions do for their members."
This pollster adds that a related problem is the functional separation of union staffers who do politics from staffers who do organizing: "The political types interact with other political types, so party operatives never see the labor movement at its most inspiring."
According to another Democratic operative, senators, governors, and their spouses and advisers just don't spend much time with union leaders, much less with union members. "If they oppose gay rights or abortion rights, they are going to get a lot of static from people they value, including their wives. But if they support NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] or don't push labor-law reform, does anyone come up to them at a cocktail party the next day and say, why did you do that?"
Of course, big money has also displaced ordinary people. Beginning in the early 1980s, Congressman Tony Coelho of California, then chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, realized that the Democrats, as the majority party in Congress, could raise bushels of money from organized business. Getting too cozy with labor undercut that strategy.
Money tends to crowd out respect for labor's strongest suit -- mobilizing voters. "We've spent the past 15 years building on-the-ground infrastructure -- door knocking, organizing. But the whole system is marinated in money," says United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard. "I remember a political consultant telling us, 'Don't give me any shit about yard signs, just give me money for TV.'"
Labor does give Democrats a lot of money, but it is only one source among many. The other big money sources include Hollywood, Wall Street, trial lawyers, and business renegades like oil wildcatters and socially liberal entrepreneurs. None of the elite Democratic Party donors wants a politics that emphasizes class differences. They tend to be center-left on cultural and foreign-policy issues but have little in common with organized labor.
Stan Greenberg, the pollster who crafted Bill Clinton's strategy of winning with a middle-class, pocketbook populism, sees a paradox: "There's more of an opportunity today for a populist middle-class message, because the middle class feels more squeezed. But there is increased structural pressure in a capitalist economy for political leaders not to be populist."
The labor movement, seemingly, is the natural counterweight to elite pressures to deregulate, privatize, reduce social outlay, and otherwise leave the middle class at risk. First, however, labor needs to be seen as more than a narrow interest group. Says Leo Gerard, "The labor movement has to do a better job explaining to the general public that we aren't what we're perceived to be on Fox News. We're the voice not just for the represented middle class but for the middle class generally."
Certainly, the present trajectory is unsustainable -- for progressives generally, for unions, and for a middle-class America. The organized middle class that the labor movement built is now the target of both newly elected Republican majorities and frightened voters looking for scapegoats. America's loss of competitiveness, for example, is often blamed on union pay scales (though Germany's highly competitive cars and well-managed auto companies have even better-compensated workers). Newly elected Republican governors are aggressively seeking to weaken public-sector unions, while even some Democrats such as New York's Andrew Cuomo and President Obama are imposing public-worker pay freezes, reinforcing the image of unions as a privileged minority rather than the voice of a working middle-class society generally.
"Rather than being honest about not enough revenues coming in because of the recession, they try to mask that by blaming the people who provide public services," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Wall Street billionaires were momentarily scorned for causing the crash that led to a generalized economic collapse, but that anger is now being focused on public-sector workers who earn around the median wage and autoworkers who have already taken steep pay cuts.
Instead of other citizens clamoring for what unionized workers have, organized labor is being asked to give up its hard-won pension and health benefits -- of the sort that citizens of other advanced capitalist countries enjoy as a right.
America, in sum, is paying dearly for its one-sided class politics. It's hard to imagine a middle-class society without a labor movement -- but it's hard to imagine organized labor thriving unless labor becomes the credible leader of a movement to reclaim a middle-class America. "Politicians put their fingers to the wind," says Mary Kay Henry, the new president of the Service Employees International Union. "We need to be the wind."