In 2021, just 10.3% of American workers were members of unions, less than half the proportion we had four decades prior. This collapse in union membership didn’t happen in Canada; it occurred in the United States for reasons specific to this country, including unpleasant changes in labor law and the practices of corporations that have taken place here over the last 40 years.
Today, in more than 40% of union election campaigns, employers are charged with violating federal law, often for illegally firing workers for union activity.
The assault on labor has contributed greatly to soaring income inequality and stagnant living standards for workers in the United States. From 1979 to 2019, productivity (the income generated from an hour of labor) has grown by 60%; yet the typical worker’s real (inflation-adjusted) compensation rose by just 14 percent. But wages used to rise with productivity: From 1948 to 1979, productivity rose by 118% and real compensation increased by 108 percent.
Now come Republicans and opponents of labor with accusations that unions are a “tool” of the Democratic Party. Never mind that Republicans have consistently opposed legislation that would strengthen workers rights, increase their income (including increases in the minimum wage), or even provide them with health care (Medicare and Medicaid). Many unions are multiracial organizations and cannot stomach the Republican Party’s growing commitment to racism.
But at present, there is another reason for the partisan divide that labor — like it or not — must deal with. As many political experts have recognized, the current political system is one of minority rule. Republicans can capture and hold political power through elections and institutions in which the majority of the population is effectively sidelined. Republicans now control the Supreme Court by a 6-3 majority; this is perhaps the most obvious example where labor cannot ignore how difficult it will be to organize unions within a judicial system stacked by Republicans.
Think of the Starbucks workers, who have fought tenaciously to organize 326 locations, and are finding that they have to fight legal battles to force the company to negotiate in good faith — which is the law under the National Labor Relations Act.
There is currently proposed legislation in the House and Senate to expand the Supreme Court, which would help remove some of these anti-labor constraints. This may happen if Democrats win Congress and hold on to the presidency.
But other structural elements of minority rule give Republicans power far beyond their actual or potential electoral support. The current 50-50 split in the Senate has the 50 Democrats representing 43 million more voters than the 50 Republicans do. And the filibuster — which could be easily abolished — gives Republicans another huge helping of undemocratic power. Corrections of these gross injustices at the margins — statehood for D.C., which is an important end in itself for democracy — could make a big difference.
Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump came to power in elections in which they lost the popular vote. We could, with some legislative changes, elect the president by popular vote, as other democracies do.
Electoral reforms that increase turnout, such as increasing polling locations and ballot drop boxes, making Election Day a federal holiday, and same-day voter registration, could also make a difference. It is unclear that Republicans could win national elections if people voted at the same participation rate as in most of Europe. But Republicans fight for the opposite. Last year, Republicans in state legislatures, beginning soon after being sworn in, introduced more than 440 bills aimed at restricting voting.
Then there is Donald Trump and many of his followers, who clearly do not think it is necessary to accept the result of a democratic election if they don’t like the result. These Republicans are trying to put “election deniers” in offices where they could possibly influence election outcomes in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona and many other places.
These are among the most serious threats to democratic elections in the United States that we have seen in decades. Two months from this Labor Day, members of unions, as well as working people throughout the country, will have some important choices to make in our national elections.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. He is the author of “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy” ( Oxford University Press). He wrote this for InsideSources.com. This essay is available to Tribune News Service subscribers.