U.S. Labor and the Struggle for Democracy
From its inception, the U.S. labor movement’s fate has been intimately bound up with the fate of political democracy. That historic connection seems more true than ever at this time. From Starbucks to Amazon, from legislative victories by fast food workers in California to the AFLCIO’s creation of the new Center for Transformational Organizing, many signs indicate a labor movement stirring to life after years of false starts, retrenchment, and retreat. Yet this hopeful energy is coalescing just as political democracy in this country—as across much of the globe—faces a deepening crisis. Whether labor can rebuild its diminished strength will depend on whether or not political democracy survives its present crisis. And whether democracy survives will in turn depend heavily on whether labor steps forward to lead not only an effort to organize workers but a fight to defend and extend democracy.
Labor’s Evolution as a Democracy-Advancing Force
Taking up the challenge of leading a democracy movement at this fateful juncture would be in keeping with U.S. unions’ evolution. Over the course of its history, as I will suggest, labor emerged from decidedly imperfect beginnings to become America’s most potent democratizing force. Understanding this historical context is crucial if we are to grasp the challenges of the present moment, in which the very survival of our democracy is at stake.
It is first important to recognize that democracy and unions were linked from the beginning. The formation of the first U.S. unions coincided almost exactly with the founding of the republic. From the outset, these organizations voiced the democratic aspirations of their (white male) members. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, journeymen’s societies mobilized their members against what they saw as a “Tory” elite. In the 1820s, the emergence of “city centrals,” the first central labor councils, helped spawn Workingmen’s Parties in multiple cities, parties that fought to elect “mechanics” to office and campaigned for a widening of the franchise. In the early 1840s, Rhode Island’s mechanics provided the backbone for the “Dorr Rebellion,” a movement that threatened a civil unrest to win removal of property requirements that kept workingmen from the polls.
To be sure, the democratic vision of these antebellum efforts was as narrow and myopic as the white-male-dominated political culture in which they were steeped. Early unions were not at Seneca Falls in 1848, advocating for women’s suffrage; nor did they champion abolitionism and the enfranchisement of Black men. Black men won the franchise in Rhode Island in 1843, but did so in spite of the fact that white workers successfully pressured the Dorr movement to drop its initial demand that they receive the same voting rights as white men.
Both the labor movement’s defense of democracy and its privileging of white men in that defense continued into the post-Civil War era. In those years, the National Labor Union (NLU), the Knights of Labor (K of L), and the American Federation of Labor all took up the mantle of defending a threatened democracy.
They criticized growing monopoly control over government, attacked “judge-made law” for undermining strikes and labor reforms, urged their members to the polls, and, in the case of the NLU and K of L, experimented with independent political parties. But theirs was not an inclusive democracy. The NLU and the AFL tolerated segregated unions, the K of L foundered in part because its effort to bring Blacks and whites into the same organization was so controversial, and all three organizations supported Chinese exclusion, judging Asian immigrants to be unfit for citizenship in a democracy. As African-American disfranchisement swept the South in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1898 Williams v. Mississippi decision, which certified the constitutionality of a variety of mechanisms used to purge Blacks from the rolls of eligible voters, the AFL ignored the problem and focused on battling the open shop.
In part due to its narrow vision, organized labor’s defense of democracy achieved meager results in the nineteenth century. Thus, as the twentieth century dawned, the United States called itself a democracy, and the AFL claimed to speak for American workers, but in truth both claims were weak. Most adults in the United States had no access to voting, while the AFL represented a small sliver of the nation’s diverse working class. These realities began to change only when expanding democracy and broadening the ranks of the labor movement became linked projects.
Building that linkage was difficult. The United States was a democracy for only a fraction of its citizens before World War I. Black men were kept from the polls by grandfather clauses and nightriders. Poor Blacks and whites alike were subject to unpayable poll taxes. Despite a half-century of suffrage agitation, women had won the vote only in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. In factory towns like New Bedford, Massachusetts, striking workers lost their voting rights if they received public relief. In Braddock, Pennsylvania, U.S. Steel’s foremen simply handed out ballots and instructed workers whom to vote for. In Huerfano County, Colorado, coal operators worked with local officials to draw electoral precincts so that polling places were on company property and on election day armed guards simply stopped any potentially “disloyal” workers from voting. The labor movement, meanwhile, spoke for only a thin stratum of U.S. workers. The AFL was excluded from growing industries like steel, autos, and electrical manufacturing, it claimed less than one-tenth of wage earners as members, and most of its affiliated unions expressed deep ambivalence if not outright hostility to expanding to include women, African-Americans, recent immigrants, and semi-skilled industrial workers.
Slowly, however, the labor movement began to change, broadening both its vision of democracy and its membership in ways that became mutually reinforcing. The first hints of that shift emerged during the progressive era when unionists and their allies began to recast their calls for union rights as demands for “industrial democracy.” That phrase became pervasive in the years between the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 and the end of World War I four years later, thanks in large part to the impact of the war itself. Woodrow Wilson fatefully cast U.S. entry into the war as a crusade to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” That framing in turn provided leverage to workers who began demanding a measure of democracy at work—industrial democracy—as their right. In reference to their autocratic foe, workers began demanding the “de-Kaisering of industry” and calling “self-government in the workshop” a vital “part of the democracy for which our armies are fighting in France.” To appease such sentiments, Wilson created the National War Labor Board (NWLB) in 1918. It further legitimized the demands for industrial democracy by directing war-related industries to allow for the election of a shop committee through which workers could bargain with their employers. Significantly, these elections were open to never before unionized semi-skilled workers in war industries—including immigrants, women, and African-Americans who were then unable to vote in political elections. Indeed, when the board circulated shop committee ballots in some shops, not only were women encouraged to vote, but voters were instructed to vote for specified numbers of women candidates to ensure that women would have a voice in the committees elected.
Although the country’s wartime upheaval was short-lived, and emergency measures like the NWLB were supplemented by the repression of radicals, the genie of industrial democracy could not be re-bottled after the war. Union gains were rolled back, but employers could not simply restore the status quo ante. Women’s participation in the war effort eased passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, granting them the vote. African-Americans who had moved north for war-related jobs and participated in shop committees increasingly chafed at discrimination and their continued exclusion from craft unions and became an active political force in northern cities. Employers increasingly experimented with company unions in an effort to appease workers’ demands for industrial democracy. The labor movement itself was also changed by its wartime experiments with industrial union-like campaigns in industries like steel and meatpacking, which planted seeds for its 1930s resurgence.
The resonance between union-building and democracy-expansion deepened dramatically during the 1930s and 1940s. The Wagner Act and industrial unionism both amplified that resonance. Explaining the larger significance of his important 1935 legislation, Senator Robert Wagner argued that the “struggle for a voice in industry through the processes of collective bargaining is at the heart of the struggle for the preservation of political as well as economic democracy in America.” John L. Lewis, for his part, explained that the Congress of Industrial Organizations was about “making realistic the principles of industrial democracy.”  As the CIO organized mass production workers, women, African-Americans, and other minorities, and as it allied with groups like the National Negro Congress (NNC), which campaigned for racial equality and the restoration of Black voting rights, labor became a vehicle for the advancement of a broadening political democracy. U.S. participation in World War II in turn fed the dialectic of advancing union organization and political democratization. During wartime, the CIO and the federal government worked to counter racial discrimination and exclusion even as the U.S. Supreme Court struck the first significant blow against Black disfranchisement in the South through its 1944 Smith v. Allwright decision, which eliminated whites-only Democratic political primaries.
Despite the toll it took on labor radicals and the narrowing of political debate it fostered, the Cold War era set the context for another step forward in the mutually reinforcing dialectic between union organization and the growth of democracy. That step was embodied by the simultaneous emergence of public sector unionism and civil rights struggles, movements that strengthened each other and pushed the country toward becoming a truly multiracial democracy. Speaking to the AFL-CIO in 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the labor and civil rights movements to join together as “architects of democracy” to “extend the frontiers of democracy for the whole nation.” The union movement responded to the rise of the civil rights struggle unevenly, but public sector unions tended to be among the most engaged. Although the AFL-CIO itself failed to support King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was among the unions that supported the march. A year later, a strong proponent of alliance with the civil rights movement, Jerry Wurf, had been elected president of the fastest growing public sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and union lobbyists helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act. By 1965, labor played a major role in securing the Voting Rights Act. The 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, whose participants raised the cry “I Am a Man” and fatefully drew Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and AFSCME’s president, Jerry Wurf, to their side, symbolized the culmination of a half-century of struggle to expand democracy, and the ranks of unions had become deeply intertwined.
The Reversal of the Democratization/Unionization Dialectic
Remembering how deeply organized labor’s rise was linked to a broader struggle to democratize America in the half-century between the end of World War I and the assassination of Dr. King helps us better grasp the nature of the reversal that gathered momentum in the last third of the twentieth century. Not only did union density plunge, the mutually reinforcing broadening of unionism and democracy decomposed and a dialectic of mutually reinforcing decline replaced it.
The reversal began during the “long 1970s,” years bookended by the Memphis strike in 1968 and the disastrous PATCO strike broken by Ronald Reagan in 1981. Between these events, a number of ominous developments unfolded. Business became more stridently anti-union and better organized. The 1971 “Powell Memo,” the ambitious agenda drafted by future Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis F. Powell, helped rally a counterrevolution against the politics of reform; following the organization of the Business Roundtable a year later, employers stepped up their anti-union efforts, and by the end of the decade, they were showing increased willingness to break strikes, a shift that would go into high gear once Reagan removed corporate inhibitions regarding strikebreaking by firing the PATCO strikers. In the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, a filibuster blocked the 1978 effort to pass a labor law reform bill that would ease union organizing (just as the threat of a filibuster would later also block efforts to ban striker replacement, pass the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009, or bring today’s Protect the Right to Organize [PRO] Act to a vote in the Senate).
In this recent period, the U.S. Supreme Court resumed the role that it had played in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, abetting the forces that would roll back union power and democracy. From Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which equated money to speech by ruling that limits on campaign spending amounted to an infringement on free speech; to Citizens United (2010), which opened the floodgates to oceans of “dark money” in political campaigns; to Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which gutted the Voting Rights Act, the court removed restrictions on vast pools of secret money even as it liberated states to make it harder for citizens to vote. Seizing the opportunity created by Shelby, legislators introduced 395 new voting restrictions in forty-nine states between 2011 and 2015. At the same time, the court struck a series of blows against union rights, undercutting public sector union financing in Janus v. AFSCME (2018), restricting access of union organizers to farm workers in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid (2021), and the list goes on. Since the 1970s, the court’s impact has grown decidedly. As law professors Lee Epstein and Mitu Gulati have recently shown, the John Roberts Supreme Court far outstrips any other court of the last century in its tendency to decide in favor of business and against workers and unions, resembling the courts of the Lochner era and the nineteenth century (please see “The Trump Supreme Court Is Nothing New: A History of the Tyranny of the Supremes” by Steve Fraser in this issue).
The costs of the combined anti-labor/antidemocracy assault are perhaps most clearly visible in Wisconsin, where a successful attack on union power by Gov. Scott Walker in 2009 opened the door to a remarkably bold subversion of majority rule. Fifty percent of Wisconsin’s public sector workers and 15.2 percent of Wisconsin workers overall were unionized in March 2011 when Walker signed Act 10 stripping most government workers of collective bargaining rights. By the end of 2012, the percentage of unionized government workers dropped to 37 percent, and union density overall eroded to 11.2 percent, the sharpest drop in any state during that period. The erosion continued. By 2021, overall union density in Wisconsin had fallen to 7.9 percent, barely half of the pre-Act 10 figure. As union strength ebbed, anti-union Wisconsin Republicans moved to weaken majority rule. Even as Act 10 took effect, they worked in secret on a new electoral map so extreme that a federal court declared it unconstitutional on partisan grounds, a rare move that was later set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Rucho et al. v. Common Cause et al., which ruled that federal courts have no business challenging electoral maps gerrymandered for partisan purposes. When Democrats won the offices of governor and the attorney general in 2018, the Republican-dominated legislature promptly stripped both offices of many of their powers. When subsequent decisions by the U.S. and Wisconsin Supreme Courts resulted in a 2022 electoral map even more favorable to Republicans than the 2011 map, Republicans came within a hair’s breadth of winning vetoproof majorities in the state legislature despite garnering fewer votes than Democrats in contested state senate races, and even though incumbent Democratic governor, Tony Evers, won reelection by relatively comfortable margin. Multiple states are now following the Wisconsin model.
Reviving Labor as a Democracy Movement
Over the past two years, much of the discussion regarding the perilous state of our democracy has naturally revolved around Donald Trump, his Big Lie, and the storming of the Capitol by his supporters on January 6, 2021, and understandably so. Within twelve months of the failed uprising, 440 bills restricting voting access were introduced in forty-nine states and nineteen states succeeded in passing thirty-four such laws.10 The truth, however, is that the present threat to democracy did not begin with Trump, nor will it be turned back simply by defeating Trumpism at the polls. Although the assault on democracy stumbled in the 2022 midterms, rest assured the battle is far from over. The forces of anti-democracy and antiunionism are intertwined and must be confronted simultaneously.
Not only can unions lead this fight, they must lead if they hope to avoid increasing marginalization in the years ahead, for if democracy continues to erode, union strength will decline with it. Unless unions make the defense and expansion of democracy central to their effort to organize workers in the twenty-first century economy, that effort will surely be subverted by the undemocratic institutions that have come to frustrate majority rule over the past half-century: the anti-union judiciary, the U.S. Senate filibuster, and gerrymandered legislative districts. In the twentieth century, unions emerged as an imperfect yet utterly indispensable democracy movement, one that drew energy from and contributed to the expansion of a multiracial democracy. If it does not come to play a similar role in the years immediately ahead, then neither unionism nor democracy is likely to survive in any recognizable form.
An effort to create a union-led democracy movement was launched by the Communications Workers of American (CWA) when it announced the Democracy Initiative in 2013 in partnership with the NAACP, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. That initiative created an umbrella coalition that in time drew over fifty membership organizations representing 20 million people, and it sought to mobilize them for an attack on the “barriers to democracy,” the Senate filibuster, money in politics, and restriction on voting rights. However, after Larry Cohen, who launched the initiative, stepped down from CWA’s presidency, it lost momentum. In recent years, other union leaders, including Randi Weingarten of the AFT, and Mary Kay Henry of SEIU, have spoken out about the threats to democracy. But most unions and their leaders remain absorbed with immediate electoral goals and the labor movement as a whole lacks a sustained multi-union effort to make democracy defense/extension central to labor’s work as we emerge from the 2022 midterms.
What would a labor-led democracy movement look like? If labor’s experience in the twentieth century offers any lesson it is that such a movement, if it is to be successful, must become more than a lobbying campaign to eliminate the filibuster and extend voting rights, as important as those goals are. It must see labor ground its fights for democracy in unions’ most essential work. As it did during its advocacy of industrial democracy in the mid-twentieth century and its support of struggles like those of the Memphis sanitation workers, labor must join its defense of democracy to its basic tools of collective bargaining and collective action. Thankfully, initiatives such as Bargaining for the Common Good, a network of unions and community organizations dedicated to expanding the horizons of bargaining and reviving labor militancy, are now attempting to do just this.
A good place for such groups to start would be by demanding adequate paid time off for voting. In a nation where many states (including some with a strong union presence such as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey) do not require employers to furnish even unpaid time off for voting, and where others, like Alabama, require employers to grant as little as one hour of unpaid leave, winning paid time off for voting should be a labor priority. Where it proves difficult to pass laws to win time off, unions and their allies should bring the fight directly to employers, demanding that they concede workers the time they need to participate in their democracy.
And the effort cannot stop with winning voting time; the fight for democracy must infuse every union’s mission. If it does not, then the very survival of both democracy and the union movement will be imperiled. With the 2024 election now around the corner, the clock is ticking.
1. For a longer version of this argument, see Sarita Gupta, Lauren Jacobs, Stephen Lerner, and Joseph A. McCartin, “The Lever and the Fulcrum: Organizing and Bargaining for Democracy and the Common Good,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Labor and Democracy, eds. Mark Barenberg and Angela B. Cornell (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 102-16.
2. Joseph A. McCartin, Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 111-14, 60.
3. Sen. Robert F. Wagner, “The Ideal Industrial State as Wagner Sees It,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, May 9, 1937, 23.
4. John L. Lewis, Industrial Democracy (Washington, DC: Committee for Industrial Organization, 1937), 12.
5. Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
6. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’ speech to the AFLCIO, 1962, available at http://umdlabor.weebly. com/uploads/2/9/3/9/29397087/speech_transcript. pdf, p. 288.
7. Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court which held that legislated limits to working time violated the right of freedom of contract
under the Fourteenth Amendment. Also see Lee Epstein and Mitu Gulati, “A Century of Business in the Supreme Court, 1920-2020,” University of Virginia School of Law Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series 2022-55, Law and Economics Research Paper Series 2022-16, August 2022, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4178504.
8. Joseph A. McCartin, “Public Sector Unionism under Assault: How to Combat the Scapegoating of Organized Labor,” New Labor Forum 22, no. 3 (2013): 54-62; Bureau of Labor Statistics,
Union Membership in Wisconsin 2012, available at: http://www.bls.gov/ro5/unionwi.htm.
9. Dan Kaufman, The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018); and Dan Kaufman, “Will Wisconsin’s Republicans Make Voting Meaningless, or Just Difficult?” The New Yorker, July 25, 2022, available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/01/will-wisconsins-republica…; Bridgit Bowden, “Wisconsin Republicans Fail to Achieve Veto-proof Majority,” Wisconsin Public Radio, November 9, 2022, available at https://www.wpr.org/wisconsin-republicans-fail-achieve-veto-proof-major….
10. “Voting Laws Roundup: December 2021,” The Brennan Center, available at https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-rou….
11. 50M People Building a Movement for Economic Justice and Democracy (Washington, DC: Communications Workers of America, 2014), available at https://www.scribd.com/document/99007004/BUILDING-AMOVEMENT-FOR-ECONOMI….
12. See Gupta, “The Lever and the Fulcrum,” 110-14; Joseph A. McCartin, Marilyn Sneiderman, and Maurice BP-Weeks, “Greater than the Sum of Its Parts: BCG’s Innovative Structure,” Non-Profit Quarterly, September 21, 2022, available at https://nonprofitquarterly.org/greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts-bcgs-i….
13. For details on state laws with respect to workers’ voting rights, see https://www.workplacefairness.org/voting-rights-time-off-work.
Joseph A. McCartin is a historian of the U.S. labor movement and 20th century U.S. social and political history. He is a professor of history at Georgetown University, where he has taught since 1999, and served as the founding executive director of Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor since 2009.