One of the many questions to be decided in this election is the future of U.S. labor policy. Unions entered the race with high hopes, having recently made big gains. They had won rising support for a $15 minimum wage, reformed overtime rules and dodged a potentially devastating blow from the Supreme Court, which, had it not been for the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, undoubtedly would have crippled labor’s ability to collect fees from millions of public sector workers who benefit from union contracts.
But any hope of translating such victories into a broad union revival hinges on the outcome of the election. Early indications suggest that the preferences of working-class voters in once densely unionized states — such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio — might be decisive. But while unions usually punch above their weight in elections, getting their members to vote Democratic in disproportionately high numbers, this year Republican Donald Trump is complicating their task.
By condemning the Trans-Pacific Partnership more vociferously than Hillary Clinton and by promising to bring good jobs back to the Rust Belt, Trump is betting that he can win by increasing the Republicans’ share of the white working-class vote. Unions are pushing back, condemning Trump as an “anti-American bigot” and scorning his hypocritical mistreatment of his own casino workers. How the battle between Trump and labor will unfold remains uncertain, but the battle for working-class white votes promises to be furious.
That fury will owe much to a peculiarly American phenomenon: In no other advanced democracy are workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively more subject to the vicissitudes of elections than in the United States.
Many countries recognize union rights in their constitutions. Some go further: Germany gives workers a formal voice in the management of their firms. In the United States, by contrast, the right to collectively bargain has always been embattled. Collective bargaining rights were first formally recognized in the Wagner Act in 1935. But the Wagner Act excluded a huge swath of workers, including all agricultural, domestic and public employees, and it framed union rights in minimalist terms, justifying them as a function of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce rather than as workers’ inalienable right to a voice in setting the terms of their labor. Even so, Wagner Act rights were further trimmed by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which strengthened management’s power to oppose unionization.
Ever since, the right to collectively bargain has been vulnerable to attack from politicians, judges and the rulings of the National Labor Relations Board, the agency created in 1935 to enforce that right, and whose politicized membership is reconstituted each time one party replaces the other in the White House. In the 1950s, NLRB policy shifts were minimal: Eisenhower Republicans generally respected collective bargaining rights. Yet by the time Ronald Reagan took office, labor policy had become deeply partisan. As Reagan’s NLRB restricted labor rights, unions and Republicans increasingly regarded each other as mortal foes.
Exacerbating this dynamic was labor’s loss of a trusted tool of leverage: the strike. The rise of organized labor was made possible by workers’ ability to strike when necessary, in order to win fair treatment from employers. The nation averaged more than 350 major strikes annually in the 1950s, when unions were strongest. Strikes declined slightly in the 1960s and 1970s. However, they plummeted after Reagan’s breaking of the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, which inspired many private sector employers to emulate Reagan’s strike-breaking. As workers began to fear for their jobs, unions nearly gave up striking.
A self-reinforcing cycle emerged: There were only 12 major strikes in 2015. As their ability to win on the picket line diminished, unions turned increasingly to politics, hoping to win through votes and legislation what they could not win at the bargaining table. The tenuousness of workers’ union rights and the erosion of strike leverage pushed unions deeper into politics, furthering the partisan polarization of labor policy with each election.
We are approaching an electoral watershed that could break the long stalemate in U.S. labor policy. If Trump wins and Republicans hold the Senate, unions will face three Republican-controlled branches of government more uniformly hostile to union rights than ever before. If Clinton wins and brings in a Democratic Congress on her coattails, labor will be poised to translate its recent victories into bigger breakthroughs.
Either way, this election could be as important for the course of America’s troubled labor policy as the 1932 election that ushered in the New Deal.