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The past decade has not been kind to organized labor. Republicans in Congress have spurned dozens of union-backed bills calling for worker-friendly measures such as a higher minimum wage or better family leave policies. And the election of President Trump in 2016 has led the executive branch to curtail the bargaining power of unions.
Now, though, labor leaders feel they are on the cusp of achieving many of their long-thwarted goals. If Joe Biden is elected President this November, and Democrats take control of the Senate—both are likely possibilities—unions intend to rewrite the country’s current labor regime.
Bill Samuel, the government affairs director of the AFL-CIO, says a prime goal of his organization is to update the National Labor Relations Act in order to make it easier for workers to join unions in the first place, and to strengthen unions’ power in collective bargaining situations. Other priorities include pushing the incoming President to sign laws boosting pay for low-wage workers, and to curtail what the AFL-CIO regards as an epidemic of companies misclassifying employees as contract workers. Also on unions’ to-do list is bolstering protections for LGBT workers, expanding access to health care, and pushing for new manufacturing jobs tied to the fight against climate change.
Much of this ambitious agenda depends on Democrats retaking the Senate. If they fail to do so, the GOP will be able to smother many labor-friendly initiatives as they have done for years. But even if they achieve only one of their November goals—a Joe Biden presidency—unions will be able to notch some victories. These would include replacing the Trump appointees on the National Labor Relations Board, and having the executive branch enforce many labor regulations already on the books—a duty that Samuel claims Trump has deliberately neglected.
More broadly, the AFL-CIO hopes to change what it views as systemic policy choices that have brought wealth to corporations and shareholders, but left working people to stagnate. Meanwhile, workers are facing new threats to their livelihood from technology and automation, and a Supreme Court that has undercut the financial clout of organized labor.
“There’s a lot of pent-up energy and frustration among working households about what the economy has done to their livelihoods,” says Samuel. “Meanwhile, the pandemic is leaving people feeling powerless and vulnerable at work.”
Organized labor is feeling confident about November, in part because of shifting public attitudes toward unions. In an annual survey conducted by Gallup, 65% of Americans expressed support for unions—the highest level since 2003. Samuel also describes a surge of new union certifications in fields like education, media, and nursing. He believes this trend will provide fresh energy for labor-friendly legislation in Washington, D.C., next year.
Such legislation is likely essential if unions are to reverse a decades long decline in their ranks. Even as popular support for unions is growing, the proportion of American workers who are part of one has declined to 10.3%. That’s down from 10.5% in 2018, and a far cry from the 1980s when roughly one in five workers belonged to a union.
The stakes, as they say, couldn’t be higher for unions this November. If Democrats return to power, organized labor will be riding high. But the reelection of President Trump, combined with an ever more conservative Supreme Court, could mean another decade of setbacks.
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