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labor Why Unions Matter So Much

The shrinking of unions effectively redistributes income from low- and middle-income workers to affluent investors.

UAW workers listen to a House Labor Committee meeting in Michigan on Wednesday.,Emily Elconin for The New York Times

For decades, the Republican Party has seemed to care more about labor unions than the Democratic Party has.

Many Republican officials treat organized labor as their political enemy. When Republicans gain power in a state capital, they often try to pass “right to work” laws meant to shrink unions. And these laws have their intended effect: They reduce the number of workers who belong to unions, reduce Democrats’ share of the vote in elections and reduce the number of working-class candidates who run for office, academic research has found.

Modern Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have often sat out the political battle. Every Democratic president for decades, including Joe Biden, has said he favors a federal law to make it easier for workers to organize — and each of those presidents has failed to pass such a law. Democratic leaders in Congress also have not made labor law a priority. Nor have many Democratic governors.

Jamelle Bouie, a Times Opinion columnist, captured this asymmetry when he wrote: “Republicans and other conservatives know who their enemies are — they know that organized labor is a key obstacle to dismantling the social safety net. The question is whether Democrats understand that their fortunes are also bound up in the fate of workers.”

On Wednesday, Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill repealing the right-to-work law that Republicans enacted in 2012. For the new bill to become law, the State Senate, which Democrats also control, would need to pass it and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would need to sign it, as she has signaled she will. Democrats gained control of the Michigan House and Senate in last year’s elections.

If the bill did become law, it would be one of only a handful of repeals of any statewide right-to-work laws. “It’s a huge deal,” Jake Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington who has studied the issue, told me.

Currently, 27 states have such laws, including most of the South and the Great Plains, as well as Indiana and Wisconsin. Whenever Republicans control both the legislature and governorship in a state, they typically push for a right-to-work law. Yet when Democrats have taken control of a state government, they have sometimes left the law in place, as was the case in Virginia a few years ago, Grumbach noted.

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The details of the right-to-work debate can be technical, but they’re worth taking a minute to understand. Above all, the laws mandate that nonunionized workers cannot be required to pay the equivalent of union dues, even if the union is negotiating pay and benefits on the workers’ behalf. Many contracts call for a company’s management and union to agree on pay and benefits for all workers in a given job category, regardless of their union status.

The central argument in favor of the laws is based on individual freedom: Why should workers have to pay dues to a union to which they don’t belong? The very term “right to work,” coined by a Dallas Morning News editorial writer in 1941, evokes freedom. The central argument against the laws is grounded in economics: They allow nonunionized workers to become free riders, receiving the advantages of collective bargaining without paying for it.

Wherever you fall on this debate, the laws clearly have an impact. They lead union membership to decline, as more workers choose not to pay dues and instead take home more money in the short term. Eventually, the laws do enough to weaken unions that they disappear from some workplaces.

In the long term, the decline of unions tends to hurt workers: A large recent study, consistent with other research, found that union members made about 20 percent more on average than nonunionized workers who were otherwise similar. The additional wages often came out of corporate profits, which explains why the decline of unions has contributed to rising economic inequality. The shrinking of unions effectively redistributes income from low- and middle-income workers to affluent investors.

(In a new Times Magazine essay about American poverty, the sociologist Matthew Desmond writes: “With unions largely out of the picture, corporations have chipped away at the conventional midcentury work arrangement, which involved steady employment, opportunities for advancement and raises and decent pay with some benefits.”)

Then there are the political effects of unions. They help turn out voters and focus voters on economic issues. That focusing role is significant because of a fact that I’ve often covered in this newsletter: Many working-class Americans hold progressive economic views while also being religious, patriotic and socially moderate.

When a labor union talks to these voters about economic policy, they become more likely to vote for a Democrat. When they are not in a union, they may instead be swayed to vote Republican by their evangelical church or Fox News. A 2018 academic study, comparing counties on either side of a state border, found that the passage of a right-to-work law reduced the Democratic Party’s vote share by about three percentage points on average.

The repeal of Michigan’s right-to-work law would be significant on its own, given the size of the state’s economy and its importance in presidential elections. It would also highlight a larger trend: The Democratic Party again seems to be emphasizing organized labor, as it did in the mid-20th century.

Biden may have failed to pass a federal law making it easier for workers to join unions, but he has repeatedly talked about their importance and included pro-union provisions in other bills. “He is paying more authentic attention to the needs of working people to have unions than the last three Democratic presidents have,” Michael Podhorzer, a former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., told me.