Ann Luther

David Madland

The number of unionized workers in the U.S. dropped again in 2020, continuing a steady decline over recent decades. Today, the share of U.S. workers in unions stands at around 10.8% — less than half of what it was in 1980.

Nearly one-quarter of all U.S. workers belonged to a union in the 1950s. But it has become increasingly difficult to form a union: just a couple of months ago, a high-profile attempt to unionize Amazon’s retail workers in Bessemer, Alabama, went down to sharp defeat. At the same time, our country is facing a dangerous moment of divisive politics and a threat of populist authoritarianism. Is that just a coincidence?

Some advocates and analysts have been suggesting a symbiotic link between strong unions and a vibrant democracy. Their argument is that union organizing is an important, if not essential, tool in building a vibrant democracy, and has been almost since our founding.

Unions equalize power in politics and in the economy and are one of the most important tools we have to fight fascism, authoritarianism, and plutocracy. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States government actively promoted unions abroad as a means of spreading democracy. Strengthening unions was essential to diluting Nazi and fascist power in Germany and weakening apartheid’s grip on power in South Africa, among other examples. Strong unions in communist Poland provided a base of opposition to the totalitarian regime and fostered what became Poland’s democratic political leadership.

It’s no wonder that aspiring totalitarians like Adolf Hitler and Victor Orban weaken labor unions as their first steps; historically, strong unions have provided a check on authoritarianism/totalitarianism.

Throughout our history, labor organizing has been linked to expanding political rights. Unionized women in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1830s were among the earliest supporters of women’s suffrage and of expansive voting rights. The labor movement has been essential to expanding suffrage in a multiracial democracy and to making those rights real by protecting the freedom to vote for all Americans.

States with strong labor unions have higher rates of voting; states with so-called right-to-work laws that weaken labor have lower rates for voting. These laws can lead to 2-3% drops in turnout.  Building strong organized labor is one of the most effective measures that we can undertake to increase voter participation.

Why would this be so? Many people will vote on their own, without help from mobilizing institutions, but it’s a lot of work to be a good citizen: being informed of the increasingly complex issues, getting to know the candidates and their views, advocating with your representatives for the policies you prefer. People with families and full-time jobs will find it difficult to do all of this on their own, especially those with fewer resources and less education. Unions help voters pool their resources and share these responsibilities of citizenship in a democratically-governed institution.

Mediating institutions like unions, political parties, and other membership organizations allow people to practice democracy, run for election, vote on their contract, and elect their officers. As such, they are mini schools of democracy, internally organized, that can show people how it works in the larger world. While unions aren’t perfect, their democratic governance allows for concentrations of power to be corrected.

Politicians are dependent on a few wealthy contributors, and we know that public policy follows. Too often, ordinary people get the public policy they want when, and only when, what they want happens to coincide with what affluent donors want.

The diminution of labor unions has contributed to widening wealth and income gaps, to policy gaps between what most people want from government and what government actually delivers, and because of this, to the politics of resentment. These resentments have provided fertile ground for the current moment of populist anger and stridently divided politics.

We need to build countervailing institutions that provide a check on corporate power and wealthy special interests and increase the political and economic power of ordinary citizens.

Unions are a “public good.” When unions are strong in a community, in a state, in a country, everyone else can free ride on the public goods that this institution provides, including a properly functioning economy and democracy. It’s time to make an investment in those public benefits.

Ann Luther is a board member of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. David Madland is the author of “Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States,” and is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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