The Labor Movement Hasn't Won Anything Yet

It looks like Democrats will win control of the Senate. But total political victory gets you nothing except permission to start the real work

Hamilton Nolan

Michael M. Santiago/ Getty Images

It looks very likely that Democrats will win control of the Senate. That means that for the first time in more than a decade, the Democrats will control both the White House and Congress. The labor movement will and should view this as the time to collect on their hefty investment in the Democratic Party. This also means that the labor unions are in mortal danger of squandering the next two years transfixed by developments in Washington while the real action passes them by.

On this hopeful morning, we should all take a moment to remember the glorious days of 2009, when Obama won the presidency, and Democrats won Congress, and the labor movement won… nothing. In the cold light of history, the enormous financial and logistical backing that major unions gave to Obama won them only a short term reprieve from blatant government repression rather than any real progress towards a revival of labor power in America. It did not win them the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, their top legislative priority. Union density in America was 12.3% in 2009. By 2016, after two Obama terms, it was 10.7%. By 2020, it was 10.3%. (In the mid-1950s, it was 35%. By the early 1980s, it was 20%.) Under both friendly and hostile presidential administrations, union membership has continued to decline for decades. Collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from union members and funneling it into the Democratic Party every four years has done nothing to solve the most pressing problems that unions face: they are slowly disappearing. 

And here we are again! Unions backed Biden strongly, vowing to keep the bitter lessons of the Obama administration in mind. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democrats who appear to have won in the Georgia Senate races, both benefited from a flood of on-the-ground support from Unite Here and other unions. The 2021 analog to the Obama-era Employee Free Choice Act is the PRO Act, a very fine bill that would roll back the worst parts of America’s anti-worker labor laws and make it meaningfully easier to build and sustain strong unions. We have won the White house. We have won the House. We have won the Senate. And we have our top priority bill in hand. 

So will the PRO Act become law? No. It will be filibustered in the Senate. In order to pass it, Democrats would have to commit to doing away with the filibuster, and Joe Manchin — now the keystone of the Senate — has said he will not do that. The Democratic Senate victory means that Biden will be able to get his judges, and he’ll be able to get his cabinet secretaries confirmed, and as a consequence the regulatory apparatus of the federal government will be more favorable towards the interests of workers than it would otherwise have been. But ultimately none of the juiciest reforms of the PRO Act, like eliminating right to work” laws and legalizing secondary boycotts, will come to pass. 

Of course it is good for organized labor that the Democrats won. I’m not trying to be a downer. I am trying to put the utility of the national Democratic Party in its proper context. For the labor movement, most of the investment in Democrats amounts to an insurance policy: We have to back Democrats because even if they don’t do anything for us, they are not actively trying to destroy us. Total Democratic control of the federal government amounts to nothing but a temporarily neutral playing field for labor. It does not get us anything. It just makes conditions somewhat more conducive to getting things for ourselves. That is the part that often gets forgotten, as unions sit back and congratulate themselves after Election Day. The myopic focus of the labor establishment on national politics is like spending all of your money on home insurance and having nothing left over to actually build a house. 

Politics follows movements. Not vice versa. We drag elected officials along after we have made the demand for change so strong it can’t be ignored. The labor movement in America is weak because not enough Americans are part of the labor movement. You can’t fight capitalism when only ten percent of the people are on your team. The labor movement must grow. If it can’t grow within the hostile forms dictated by current law, it must grow outside of those forms. 

Union leaders can wake up today and bask in the knowledge that they got their victory. They should also marinate in the knowledge that this victory will not buy them a single new union member. Political donations are a protection racket for unions. On the other hand, money spent on organizing is never wasted. If we spend the next two years hypnotized by Congress and the PRO Act and getting ready for the next midterms, two years will pass, and union density will continue to decline, and we will be weaker than we are today. We should instead look out towards the 90% of working people who do not have a union, and ask: How do we get them one? 

We will be told today that we won in Georgia. The state of Georgia ranks 47th out of 50 in union density. Barely four percent of workers there are union members. What has the labor movement actually won for the people there? How much will their lives be changed in the next two years?

The election is over. Fall out of love with politics, and fall in love with organizing. Please. 

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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