The stunning success of the West Virginia teachers’ strike—winning a 5 percent raise not only for themselves but for all the state’s public employees—suggests that in labor relations, as in everything else, the nation is moving, with accelerating speed, in opposite directions. As the five Republican justices on the Supreme Court are poised to weaken public-sector unions with their forthcoming decision in the Janus case, a state full of public schoolteachers with no legal right to collective bargaining have just won an amazing victory.
This requires some explanation. I’ll try.
To begin: While unions may be smaller and weaker than at any time since the pre-New Deal days, public support for unions is high and growing: In the latest Pew and Gallup polls, unions have approval ratings of 60 and 61 percent, respectively. Among millennials, a generation whose experience of the American economy has been preponderantly dismal, the approval rating for unions exceeds 70 percent. This does not mean millennials have had positive experiences with unions. With union membership at 11 percent, and only 6.5 percent in the private sector, most millennials have had no experience with unions at all. However, as their grandparents and great-grandparents realized in the 1930s, they have figured out that unless workers gain more power, the inequality and unfairness baked into the economy will only grow worse—a belief that many of their elders share. West Virginia may have gone heavily for Trump, but popular support for the teachers there was such that the Republican governor and legislature felt compelled to grant them their raise.
Also working in the teachers’ favor were the digital channels of communication and mobilization that the unions and their supporters were able to create on Facebook pages and the like. A similar process is unfolding in Oklahoma, where unions are scarcely to be found, but where a Facebook page that teachers have used to organize themselves for a possible strike now has 40,000 followers. As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, digital communications make mobilization—a task that unions were once needed to perform among workers—much easier. Tufekci, who joined the occupiers in Zuccotti Park and in the great squares of Cairo and Istanbul, also noted that none of those occupations had sufficient structure to reach decisions or negotiate with the authorities. The West Virginia teachers had enough structure, however—their unions, even without de jure bargaining rights—so that they were able to reach a deal with the state, and the Oklahoma teachers may be in that sweet spot as well.
While unions as institutions are weak, public action on behalf of workers appears strong enough to win victories for those workers in the legislative process, as the Fight for 15 has demonstrated. Actual organizing of private-sector workers, however, remains all but impossible under the constraints of labor law, so until that public pro-union sentiment becomes so strong that it forces a wholesale rewriting of labor law, the institutional strength of labor isn’t likely to grow.
Meanwhile, back at the Court, the Republican justices look to be following the general pattern of Republican elected officials. In decades past, the “right-to-work” laws designed to cripple unions were confined to the anti-union South and Southwest, but in the past decade, Midwestern Republicans have moved to adopt “right-to-work” laws, too, in such former union strongholds as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. This transformation, I’d argue, is of a piece with the Republican campaigns to suppress voting, stop immigration, and enact increasingly extreme legislation. At the root of all these actions is the GOP leaders’ awareness that the nation’s growing racial diversity and millennials’ left-leaning politics give them just a few short years to enact legislation or deliver court rulings that can delay or derail their political eclipse—like weakening the very unions that do the best job of helping bring minorities and millennials to the polls.
All of which is why 2018 looks to be shaping up as a year of both dejection and elation, or, more precisely, of fear (chiefly among Republicans) and rage (chiefly among everyone else).