Mary Will, left, with Local 68, and Corey Smith, right, with Local 113, chant during a rally inside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison as the state Assembly debated the right-to-work bill March 5. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, Amber Arnold)

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was reclining in his Capitol hideaway, ticking through ideas to improve education, immigration, infrastructure and government-funded research, all in hopes of reviving the middle class. It was a five-point plan, and the fifth point, which he conceded needed some political messaging help, was this: “I’d make it easier,” the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate said, “to form unions.”

“I think the Republican destruction of unions just kills the middle class,” he said. “And as people start sinking and earning less and less, they’ll be more open to that.” Expanding union membership, he added, “is gaining more currency” as a policy solution, “because the statistics are becoming clear and overwhelming about the middle-income decline.”

In recent months, a collection of left-leaning politicians, economists, and public intellectuals have started making a renewed case for collective bargaining as a tool to heal the ailing middle class. The pitch doubles as an effort for Democrats to preserve a key constituency they’ve long relied on to win elections, at a time when conservatives are making strong gains in often very public attacks on union power.

[Related: Laws that decimate unions may be inevitable. Here’s how labor can survive.]

Increasing the ranks of labor unions has long been a goal of Democratic lawmakers. It’s also been a losing fight -- union membership has been shrinking for decades -- and often, a low priority for the party when it is in power. That appears to be changing, at least rhetorically, for Democrats and their allies as they hone a middle-class message for the 2016 elections.

It is a shift that carries risks for the party. With its renewed emphasis, Democratic leaders are betting that middle-class voters will embrace a strategy for income growth -- collective bargaining -- they have little personal experience with, in a way they have not in the recent past, at a time when employers are more likely to automate jobs or outsource them to foreign workers.

Fewer than one in eight Americans belongs to a union, and the highest job growth in the economy today is coming from traditionally non-unionized sectors. Democrats’ recent attempts to rally voters around attacks on unions, in states such as Wisconsin, have largely failed.

“The larger progressive movement is coming around to the realization that if you want to address income equality and wage stagnation, you need to support unions,” says David Madland, director of the Center for American Progress’ American Worker project. “Now that Republicans increasingly have become so hostile to unions, they’ve sort of forced a fight, and forced progressives to evaluate what they think.”

It’s not just the party’s Elizabeth Warren wing giving labor organizing a second look.

The superstar economist Larry Summers, whom unions vociferously opposed when he was being considered to chair the Federal Reserve, is now talking about “adequately empowering workers” by “giving collective bargaining a serious chance.” Robert Rubin, whom liberals consider overly friendly to Wall Street, said this at a think tank event in February: “Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth.”

Hillary Clinton, the runaway favorite for the party’s presidential nomination, is reportedly considering a package of labor law reforms to promote collective bargaining. In a recent speech to the political group Emily’s List, she drew some of her largest applause when she talked about the importance of helping workers organize.

In her annual testimony to Congress last month, Fed Chair Janet Yellen, a Democratic appointee, identified the decline of labor unions as a primary reason why wage growth isn’t picking up. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who had long seen unions as groups that oppose change and only enrich their members, publicly announced he had changed his mind.

[Related: Obama blasts Walker over Wisconsin’s right-to-work law]

And then there’s the White House itself, which has gone out of its way several times in recent months to talk about the value of the labor movement, from support for “laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions” in the State of the Union to designating a national park in Chicago in honor of the Pullman strike. President Obama has scheduled a “workers summit” for later this fall, and in a rare statement opining on state policy, he issued a strong rebuke to Governor Scott Walker for signing a right-to-work law in Wisconsin. The important part of that message: Making unions matter not just for the 11.3 percent of the population that belongs to one.

“This is one of those important issues that is not just for labor union members,” Obama said. “This is an important issue for everybody who works because if there is not a balance of power in the workplace, everybody will suffer.”

It might not sound all that surprising that Democrats are talking about why unions are valuable. But for years, they largely didn’t bother. After helping Obama win the presidency in 2008, unions’ first top legislative priority — the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have allowed unions to win elections just by collecting signatures from a majority of workers — went down in flames in the Senate, even though Democrats held a filibuster-proof majority. Unions got little out of the Affordable Care Act except for a tax on their health plans; their objections were overruled.

But still, they backed health care reform overall and supported Obama again in 2012. While Wall Streeters might abandon Democrats if the party displeases them, for labor unions, Republicans — many of whom have actively been trying to destroy labor unions — are just not a viable alternative.

“Some of us have been saying for a while that the right wing has a much greater appreciation for what unions do than Democrats and progressives do.”

— Steve Rosenthal

“Some of us have been saying for a while that the right wing has a much greater appreciation for what unions do than Democrats and progressives do," says Steve Rosenthal, a progressive campaign consultant who served as political director of the AFL-CIO for seven years. “It’s us or them. It puts unions in a terrible box.”

Lately, two things have happened to change that. First, economics started to go haywire.

Productivity has been increasing much faster than median wages for 30 years, and the gap between the incomes of the very rich and everyone else has widened. And even as unemployment has fallen in the recovery from the Great Recession, the typical household’s inflation-adjusted income has barely budged.

[Related: Wages are telling us unemployment can go a lot lower]

Unions and liberal economists have long linked those trends to the decline in union membership, arguing that income inequality is rising because workers are losing power to demand higher wages. That argument has gained support from recent research. The (hardly leftist) International Monetary Fund issued a report tying the decline of collective bargaining to the widening gap between rich and poor around the world, following a similar study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“The IMF and the OECD have recognized that economic inequality is directly tied to the weakening of labor unions,” says Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO. “It’s not a surprise that Democrats have come around to that point of view, as well.”

Just as important for Democrats was that the success of conservative attacks on unions became impossible to ignore.

States that once seemed solidly union-friendly, such as Michigan and Indiana, have adopted right-to-work laws. For the conservative activists driving anti-union legislation in the states, weakening labor’s power is a way to hurt Democrats in presidential elections, as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist made clear on a panel at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference entitled “On Wisconsin! Turning blue states red.” Even in their weakened state, unions still added 2.8 points to Obama’s margin of victory in 2012, according to an analysis by Fivethirtyeight.

The Obama administration has largely boosted unions through actions by the National Labor Relations Board. Now that they control the Senate, Republicans have mounted a new effort to overturn those actions. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, fresh off a decision last year narrowing the ability of unions to collect fees from nonmembers, will consider another case that could take away that collection ability altogether.

Unions have used national protests against Wal-Mart and some fast-food companies to raise the profile of worker unrest, while in Washington, the AFL-CIO hopes to channel that energy into a package of legal reforms that could help boost membership.


“I think the Republican destruction of unions just kills the middle class,” says Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).  (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Some centrist Democrats, including the moderate New Democrat Coalition in the House, aren’t embracing bargaining power as part of their middle-class agendas. Many business groups dismiss the rest of the party’s renewed union focus as an opportunistic bid for assistance in organizing campaigns.

"There is no reason people in the office towers in New York City can’t be unionized.”

— Sen. Chuck Schumer

“Our nation’s labor laws haven’t changed since the 1950s, and the unions never pushed for so-called reforms until their membership numbers fell through the floor,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The structure of the economy has changed a lot since the '50s, in ways that have hurt unions. A big part of the decline of union density is the decline of manufacturing employment and the rise of non-union service jobs -- at a time when employer opposition to unionization is much stronger than it was in the 1930s and '40s.

That means Democrats who want to expand union membership would need to help unions expand into new territory -- which would mean convincing workers with no personal experience with unions that organizing would be good for them.

Schumer has a pitch in mind for those workers: "Do you want your boss to keep taking advantage of you?” he asked. He continued: “We have to figure out how to package [unionization] better... This is not just manufacturing jobs. There is no reason people in the office towers in New York City can’t be unionized.”

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