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Michael Swartz / September 8, 2021

How Big Is Big Labor Now?

Unions have only a fraction of their past power, but they can still wield influence.

Many of us took advantage of this past three-day weekend to throw a family barbecue, head for the beach, or either prepare kids for the upcoming school year or take a break from the one that already started. But in those places that still celebrate Labor Day the old-fashioned way with a big parade, the mood has become a little less cautious and somewhat more optimistic, given that unions’ share of the workforce has inched up since the pandemic began.

There’s a caveat, though: While the unionized workforce share is up, the total number of union members is down over 321,000. They’re buoyed by the fact that non-union employment declined faster than the union rolls, which have been swelled in recent years by public-sector workers. And don’t forget the real numbers: Union participation “is now so low that only 6.3 percent of workers in the private sector — and only 10.8 percent of all U.S. workers — belong to a union,” says commentator Juan Williams. “In the 1950s, 33 percent of workers were signed up as union members.”

With the changeover to a trifecta of Democrat government control last January, however, union leaders and supporters are optimistic that help is on the way from Uncle Sam. Aside from the job losses union workers experienced thanks to the cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline, they believe that the Biden administration will be helpful to their cause by moving a vast infrastructure bill and the PRO Act through Congress. The latter bill would be a huge boon for unions, as it eliminates states’ choice in being right-to-work.

Moreover, unions will have a chance to flex their political muscle next week in staving off a bid to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom. Williams says that Newsom is “leaning heavily on support from the state’s teachers’ unions to turn out voters,” and despite unions’ waning power, “they still have tremendous political leverage at critical moments like the California recall.”

The reason Big Labor may be looking to get a leg up through Congress is their reluctance to expend the effort to unionize workers themselves. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Sean Higgins makes the point that the AFL-CIO went from spending 30% of its revenues on organizing under longtime president John Sweeney to just 10% under his successor, the late Richard Trumka. Succeeding the recently deceased Trumka will be former secretary-treasurer Liz Schuler, who, as Higgins notes, “has given little indication that she’ll break from Trumka’s politics-centered approach.” Ending the allowance of opting out given to union shop workers in right-to-work states will present Big Labor with many millions more in cash to help Democrats, regardless of the workers’ political leanings.

If your city or town still holds a Labor Day parade with all the union trappings, they are a dying breed. Given Big Labor’s constant battle to try and stack the deck in unionizing workers without selling them on the benefits of being in the union, Americans who wish to secure and keep good jobs may reluctantly end up in a union, but they’re not going to be enthusiastic enough about it to march in a parade for them. More importantly, they’re going to work in their own political interest and not that of their union. Imagine a Rust Belt that’s not diehard Democrat and you may have a glimpse into the political future.

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