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Opinion On Labor Day, Democrats and unions should recall their shared history

Michelle Eisen, a barista at a Starbucks location in Buffalo, helps out the local Starbucks Workers United as they gather at a local union hall to cast votes to unionize or not, on Feb. 16 in Mesa, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.

In the summer of 1894, a Democratic Congress easily passed and a Democratic president promptly signed a bill making Labor Day a holiday for federal workers. Samuel Gompers, the era’s most prominent union leader, welcomed the move, though he also called it merely a “slight concession” to workers at a time of rising unemployment and hunger.

Then, just a week after inking the measure, President Grover Cleveland took a step that had a far greater impact on him and his party. He dispatched 2,000 federal troops to Chicago to break a strike by railroad workers that was crippling the economy.

The unprecedented act antagonized many of the wage earners who had helped elect Cleveland two years earlier. In midterm elections that fall, Democrats lost more than 100 seats in the House and two in the Senate. A day after the debacle, Gompers wrote to Cleveland: “Without much concert of effort by organized labor the people have answered at the polls your assumption of an unconstitutional and unwarrantable use of the military power to crush labor.”

As a fledgling union revival spreads across the country, Democrats would do well to recall the lesson of those events: They need unions to win. But unions also need Democrats, and now is the time for the party to step up to promote the kind of organizing that will benefit both sides in the future.

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: Unions are growing more popular. Democrats should talk about that.

Democrats today are voicing rhetorical support for organized labor as strongly as they have at any time in the party’s history. “We should encourage unions,” President Biden remarked in June. “I’m not just saying that to be pro-union. I’m saying it because I’m pro-American.” Biden also met with Christian Smalls, the young Black leader of a drive to sign up workers at Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

But sympathetic rhetoric is not enough. The labor revival that Smalls and his fellow activists are stoking remains modest. It has found success mainly among wage earners at firms such as Starbucks and REI, who tend to be young college graduates. The labor upsurge has yet to reach those Whites and Hispanics who have spent little or no time in college — sizable groups that have been shifting toward the GOP. Where large numbers of less educated Hispanics do belong to unions, in cities such as Los Angeles and New York, most still vote solidly Democratic.

The now bright-red state of West Virginia offers an object lesson in union power. From the 1930s through the 1990s, White workers there faithfully elected Democrats. Driving the party’s long sway in the state was its bond with the United Mine Workers, which taught its members that Democrats stood for higher wages and protection of the right to organize, and that Democrats were helping fund the free union-run health-care system. Then mechanization and decline of the coal market sliced the UMW down to half its former size. West Virginia became one of the poorest states in the country. Without the union, working-class residents had nowhere they could complain about their lack of economic and medical security — at least in a way that benefited Democrats.

What can Biden’s party do to help make unions into a force that can boost its electoral fortunes while providing workers a degree of democracy as well as higher pay and better conditions? Buoyed by polls showing that more than two-thirds of Americans have a positive opinion of unions, Democrats should strongly promote the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would decisively weaken employers’ current advantage in the battle to unionize. The Pro Act would be a long-overdue revision of federal labor law, which has not been seriously amended in more than 70 years. And more Democrats should talk up organizing drives and walk on picket lines, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other progressives have done. The Labor Department, to its credit, has a new website filled with advice for workers who want to form unions.

But Democrats’ ability to rebuild labor into a social juggernaut will be limited unless millions of workers make the effort to organize themselves. Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t seriously back unions until the massive strike wave of 1934 made it imperative for him to do so. The nascent alliance helped Democrats dominate the midterms that fall. But not until the movement, in political scientist Daniel Schlozman’s term, “anchored” itself in the party did the heyday of modern liberalism really begin.

The early history of Labor Day shows how unions can sway public officials even during a time of widespread inequality. By the time Congress voted in 1894, workers in many cities were celebrating the day with marches and picnics, and organizers had convinced 24 state legislatures to give their residents the day off. Unions have always been most effective when their concerted power has compelled politicians to respond.

And Democrats have been most successful when they have helped labor to organize — and win.