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Democrats could reverse years of neglecting unions — if they’re bold enough

Republicans have systematically undermined a key democratic constituency. Fighting back requires a kind of hardball Democrats aren’t typically willing to play.

Joe Biden Campaigns In Warren, Michigan.
Joe Biden campaigning in Michigan outside the United Auto Workers (UAW) Region 1 office on September 9, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Last week’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill proved that Democrats are willing to go big on policy.

But another bill, a sweeping revision of a labor law called the PRO Act, poses a different kind of test for the party: Just how willing are Democrats to use their newfound power to reshape the foundations of American politics in their favor?

The PRO Act, passed by the House last Tuesday and currently languishing in the Senate, would be the most significant pro-labor legislation passed since the New Deal. Its most politically significant provision is a complete repeal of all right-to-work laws in states — bills that Republican majorities have used to undermine unions, a crucial pro-Democratic constituency, across the country. Their repeal would go a long way toward undoing a deliberate GOP strategy to rig the system in their favor.

The Biden administration has already taken a notably more pro-union stance even by Democratic standards, supporting both the PRO Act and the right of Amazon workers in Alabama to unionize. Acting on this rhetoric would in some ways be as bold for Democrats as the explicit political reform bills in Congress: HR-1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Those bills openly aim to reform the political system; the PRO Act wields labor policy as a vehicle for strengthening a key political ally after decades of neglect.

“I actually have found that, for Democrats, the number one complaint that you get when you talk about [policy in these terms] is that ‘we don’t do this stuff,’” says Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale who studies the political effects of policy. Broadly speaking, “this stuff” refers to the use of policy to change society in one’s political favor. It’s a way of thinking Republicans have long embraced when it comes to unions, but Democrats have seemed uncomfortable even contemplating.

The concerns about using policy for political advantage are real. But is Democratic high-mindedness a problem? Is there a point where restraining yourself from using policy to your political advantage becomes dangerous — especially in the face of a rival party that’s increasingly turning against democracy itself?

Political power and “policy feedback,” explained

The political argument for the PRO Act emerges out of a concept in political science called “policy feedback.” The idea, developed in the 1990s, is that the politics of a particular policy reform extend beyond its poll numbers: that the concrete consequences of the policy itself can reshape political reality.

Policies can change the way people think, create new interest groups, or weaken existing ones. These effects make a policy more likely to survive and expand — and the party that passed them more likely to benefit down the line.

Sometimes, policy feedback effects are really intuitive: Once people started benefiting from Medicare and Obamacare, these policies became more popular, harder to repeal, and more likely to be built upon by future administrations. Sometimes, they’re more subtle: The 2009 stimulus dramatically strengthened the US clean energy sector, which is now using its financial clout to lobby in favor of further renewables expansion in the Biden administration.

In a 2019 paper, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez — a political scientist now serving in the Biden Labor Department — looked at the history of labor law in the US through the lens of policy feedback. He found a clear pattern of asymmetric polarization.

“An increasingly powerful conservative movement within the Republican Party has leveraged cutbacks to union rights to weaken their political opponents even as Democrats have not seen labor policy through this lens,” he writes.

The GOP war on labor has been primarily waged in the states, where a group of three organizations — the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, and the State Policy Network (SPN) — have drafted and lobbied for legislation like right-to-work that undermine labor power. Their political intent was far from hidden.

“I believe [our policies] will deal a major blow to the left’s ability to control government at the state and national levels,” Tracie Sharp, SPN’s president, wrote in a 2016 fundraising letter. “I’m talking about...permanently depriving the left from access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle.”

Cook County Essential Workers Hold One-Day Strike In Chicago
Health care workers on strike in Chicago in December 2020.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Republican bills have worked as intended. A 2018 study by Hertel-Fernandez, James Feigenbaum, and Vanessa Williamson compared Democratic electoral performance in counties in right-to-work states with their performance in neighboring counties in states without right-to-work laws. Bordering counties tend to be demographically very similar, so this method makes it much easier to actually isolate the political consequences of weakening unions.

In right-to-work counties, Democrats perform about 3.5 points worse in presidential elections, with “similar effects in Senate, House, and Gubernatorial races, as well as on state legislative control.” To put that in perspective, an additional 3.5 points would have swung Florida and North Carolina — both right-to-work states — into the Biden column in 2020.

Yet despite the political significance of the GOP’s embrace of policy feedback thinking about unions, Hertel-Fernandez argues that Democrats have been reticent to counter the GOP’s attacks.

“The Obama administration notably let the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill to support greater labor organizing, fall by the wayside during the short window in 2009 and 2010 when Democrats enjoyed near filibuster-proof majorities in Congress,” he writes in the 2019 paper. “There is no liberal version of state-level right-to-work laws that Democrats have consistently pursued over the years on a scale that matches conservative efforts to retrench labor power.”

Now, Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House. The House has passed the PRO Act and Biden has said he supports it. The Senate majority has the ability to abolish the filibuster, or at least weaken it, and push the bill through.

This might even be popular. A new poll from Data for Progress, conducted on behalf of the AFL-CIO and provided exclusively to Vox, found that when the PRO Act’s provisions are described to voters, there was strong support (51-36) for reforming Senate procedure so that a simple majority could pass it.

With a single stroke, they could undo every state’s right-to-work laws and enact a series of other reforms strengthening one of their most important constituencies.

Save labor, save democracy

The fact that Democrats can use power to create policy feedbacks doesn’t mean that they should. And it’s not at all unreasonable for Democrats to be concerned about the moral implications of using policy to strengthen their allies.

One of the hallmarks of a declining democracy, like contemporary Hungary, is the politicization of policy: the use of tools like regulatory and tax policy to weaken the political opposition and consolidate the regime’s hold on civil society. There’s a fine line between policy feedback thinking and abuse of power.

However, there are good reasons to think that enacting the PRO Act is more the former than the latter.

The fundamental story of contemporary American politics is the Republican Party’s increasingly anti-democratic turn. Their approach to labor policy is linked to other policies, like extreme gerrymandering and voter ID laws, that aim to rig the system in their favor. There is a reason why right-wing anti-democrats abroad often go after labor when they consolidate power: Unions are an independent power structure that helps mobilize voters for the political opposition.

Taking an explicitly political view of labor policy is certainly aggressive. But a degree of policy aggressiveness is justified when it’s in service of protecting democracy itself. And protecting an egalitarian sector of civil society from government attacks should be seen as a small-d democratic cause.

The evidence we have about unions’ effects on social attitudes bolster their democratic bonafides.

One of the key determinants of Republican voters’ support for authoritarian attitudes is racial antagonism; the sorting of racially resentful voters into the GOP over the last few decades is one of the most important reasons the party has been able to pursue an increasingly anti-democratic agenda. Organized labor is one of the few social institutions that has been shown to effectively reduce racial hostility at scale.

A march against racism in Seattle, Washington, organized by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

A 2020 paper, by Princeton’s Paul Frymer and University of Washington’s Jacob Grumbach, tracked a large sample of workers before and after they became union members. They found that, after joining the union, the workers scored lower on measures of racial resentment and became more favorable toward race-conscious policies like affirmative action. A 2018 study on European union members found workers were considerably less likely to support racist far-right parties than non-unionized peers.

The notion that unions are a vital element of democracy, promoting social solidarity and civic commitment, hasn’t always been a partisan claim. In a 2002 speech, Lorne Craner — assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration — argued that the strength of organized labor is vital for preserving fragile democracies from their internal enemies.

“There are countries on every continent that are in danger of backsliding. Demagogues in these countries have skillfully exploited the disenchantment of those who feel marginalized,” Craner says. “Trade unions are one of the institutions that help to ensure the long-term sustainability of newly emerging democracies.”

The United States may not be a “newly emerging” democracy, but experts certainly believe it’s an imperiled one. In the case of unions, Democratic partisan interests and the interests of American democracy are aligned: it is not an abuse of power to act to preserve a politically friendly constituency that also serves as a bulwark of political freedom.

American labor unions are in the midst of a long decline: Only 6.3 percent of private sector workers were unionized in 2020, the lowest figure recorded since the government started keeping statistics on this figure. Despite real evidence that labor unions can be important to democracy’s health — and the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes — modern Democrats have done little to arrest this decline.

Today, Democrats are increasingly shedding their illusions about the nature of the GOP and the stability of American democracy. If they want to fight back, they need to start thinking more seriously about who their political allies are and what can be done to strengthen them. Reversing the collapse of the labor movement isn’t the only way Democrats can fight here — but it’s one of the most important ones.