The past eight years have been a decidedly mixed story for American workers.

On the positive side, the Obama administration was one of the most pro-union administrations in decades. Obama’s second-term secretary of labor, Tom Perez, was probably the most effective secretary of labor since Franklin Roosevelt’s choice of Frances Perkins, and his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board were widely heralded by unions—indeed, former Communication Workers of America president Larry Cohen said, “The quality of this board is the best ever.”

Under this leadership, the Obama administration secured multiple victories for workers’ rights. In 2016 the Department of Labor issued a rule forcing companies to reveal the union-busting firms they hire; then it published another requiring government contractors to provide paid sick leave to their employees. For its part the NLRB granted franchised workers the right to unionize against McDonald’s, rejecting corporate claims that McDonald’s employees actually worked for the franchisee. It also ruled to allow workers union representation when forced to take a drug test, and that so-called “permatemps” are considered employees of their place of work during union elections.

The Obama administration secured multiple victories for workers’ rights, but could not turn the long tide of declining union membership.

Yet the Obama administration could not turn the long tide of declining union membership. After peaking at around 35 percent of American workers in the mid 1950s, by 2008, only 12.4 percent of American workers were union members. In 2016 that number was 10.7 percent.

Progressive policy and victories from the Obama administration also could not counter extreme anti-unionism from increasingly hostile Republicans. As they took over statehouses around the country, Republicans pressed a stridently anti-union agenda that took former union strongholds by storm. Nowhere was this more prominent than in Wisconsin, a former center of American liberalism. Governor Scott Walker signed a draconian right-to-work bill that allowed workers to opt out of their union as well as a bill that stripped public sector unions of the ability to bargain over almost anything, while limiting contracts to a single year. The trend continued elsewhere in the country, with Missouri and Kentucky both becoming right-to-work states, and Iowa passing an even more radical bill than Wisconsin’s. Even Michigan, the home of the United Auto Workers, stripped public sector workers of their rights in a right-to-work bill.

This mixed bag for American workers suggests both the possibilities and limitations of labor unions’ integration into the Democratic Party. Nothing in American labor history suggests unions can succeed if the government opposes their causes, but unions have consistently failed to further a pro-labor agenda within the Democratic Party. And without a realistic alternative—the Republican Party, after all, has waged a multi-decade war on workers—unions have no choice but to keep working within the Democratic Party.

Historically unions have faced three fundamental challenges within the Democratic Party. First, and perhaps most importantly, they are politically isolated, thanks to geographical limitations. Unions only ever held significant power in a handful of states in the Northeast and Midwest, with smaller numbers on the West Coast. This meant that politicians throughout the South, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain states could ignore unions, attract companies to their states by claiming they would remain non-union, and pay no political price for hostility to organized labor.

Second, the Democratic Party has lacked a coherent industrial policy for the last half-century that would foster union growth. Both Democrats and Republicans have helped companies move their union factories to overseas locations while having no realistic job plans for those workers left behind.

Third, and as a result of the other two issues, the labor movement has remained a junior partner in the Democratic Party, unable to be the kingmaker it hoped to be after World War II. Without meaningful input or control of the Democratic agenda, it remains reliant on the goodwill of national Democrats and the few allies it does manage to cultivate to promote its agenda.

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In the early twentieth century, American unions generally avoided party politics. But during World War II the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the industrial union federation formed in 1937 to organize the millions of unorganized factory workers in the auto, steel, rubber, and electrical industries, tied its fate to the Democratic Party. Union leaders such as Sidney Hillman took top advisory positions in the Roosevelt administration, and the administration promised unions that wartime workers would have to join their organizations in exchange for a no-strike pledge during the war. This led to millions of new members for industrial unions such as the United Auto Workers and United Steel Workers of America and the integration of these unions deep into Democratic Party planning. Union leaders such as UAW president Walter Reuther played a critical role in the development of post-war liberalism.

The labor movement has remained a junior partner in the Democratic Party, unable to be the kingmaker it hoped to be after World War II.

Yet the limitations of labor within the post-New Deal coalition quickly became clear. In 1947 Congress overrode President Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act. This law made many of the direct action tactics that the CIO had used to win its groundbreaking victories, such as the sit-down and the sympathy strike, illegal. It also allowed states to pass the right-to-work legislation that Republicans have embraced in the last eight years.

Taft-Hartley passed with many Democratic votes because unions were so concentrated in a few states. At its peak in the early 1950s, more than half of CIO membership was in five states—New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. They never succeeded in organizing the South, the Mountain West, or the Great Plains, which meant that large numbers of prominent Democrats cared little about them. When Lyndon Johnson ran for Senate in 1948, he accused his opponent Coke Stevenson of being cozy to unions. This was a lie, but it was very effective in anti-union Texas.

The unions, of course, had tried to organize the South, but southern politicians saw the union effort as a direct attack on regional industrialization. They had attracted the textile industry there by promising to keep it union-free. Alabama helped start this process in 1894 by repealing its child labor law after a Massachusetts company promised to relocate there if it could employ children. Textile companies hoping to escape unions then began leaving the Northeast en masse beginning in the 1910s. By 1934 the United Textile Workers, a declining union based in New England’s last textile mills, launched a massive union effort involving hundreds of thousands of southern textile workers. Southern politicians and employers had tried to paint unions as foreign, as agents of racial equality, and as dominated by Jews, but the poor conditions workers faced had eroded this opposition, making the 1934 textile workers strike one of the largest at the time. The southern politicians, however, were far more committed to serving the mill owners than their constituents. Four southern governors called out the National Guard to crush the strike, and the UTW died soon after.

In 1946, the CIO was fearful that much of the rest of the northern industry would move South too. They launched Operation Dixie, pouring hundreds of organizers into the South to bring southern industries into the federation. While it had early victories in the tobacco industry, southern whites prioritized white solidarity over class interests. With the CIO tarred as supporting integration, the union tried to downplay its organizing among black workers, alienating those actually interested in joining. It was a dismal failure.

Unionization rates in the South remained the lowest in the nation, as they are today. This year’s overwhelming rejection of the International Association of Machinists’ attempt to organize Boeing’s South Carolina plant, with 74 percent of workers voting against unionization, is just the latest rebuke of unions by southern workers, an issue for which organized labor has never developed an effective answer.

Unions remained central players within the Democratic Party during the 1950s and 1960s, but their inability to organize the South limited their political power. They could never overturn Taft-Hartley or pass comprehensive labor legislation. Their inefficacy became all the more clear as two southern Democrats from non-union states became president. The relative weakness of the labor movement today is in no small part the legacy of the indifference of both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton toward organized labor.

Carter came to power as a moderate, reformist southern governor, bringing southern politics back to respectability after a generation of staunch segregationists had dominated the nightly news. But unions had struggled to gain much traction in Georgia, and Carter owed little to them. When he took office, during a period of high inflation, oil crises, and the first large-scale economic downturn since the Great Depression, Carter governed well to the right of a liberal Democratic majority in Congress. He vetoed several pieces of liberal legislation and significantly weakened much of what he did sign. Nowhere was this more damaging to the union agenda than the Humphrey-Hawkins Act in 1978.

Unionization rates in the South are the lowest in the nation.

As originally drafted, Humphrey-Hawkins would have drastically transformed the fundamental status of what work meant in the United States. Its sponsors, Democrats Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the AFL-CIO’s biggest supporter in the Senate, and Augustus Hawkins of California, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, intended it as a full-employment bill that would create a government commitment as an employer of last resort for unemployed workers. Carter and his advisors, fearing the impact on inflation and disdainful of this level of government planning, weakened the bill to the point of near meaninglessness before agreeing to sign its remnants. In the bill’s final version, the government had no legal obligation to provide jobs for workers and the goal of full employment was more rhetoric than reality.

All of this alienated organized labor. In Stayin’ Alive, a wonderful history of the working class in the 1970s, the historian Jefferson Cowie recounts when a journalist asked International Association of Machinists president Wimpy Winpisinger what Carter would have to do to recover his reputation among unions. “Die,” Winpisinger answered. Though he did not really want Carter to die, he also called Carter, “The best Republican president since Herbert Hoover.” This contempt ran through the labor movement, distressing union leaders who wanted to see a Democratic president fight for the rights of working people.

After three straight presidential defeats, including Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Democrats finally won again in 1992 with another southern moderate governor who had few debts to pay to unions: Bill Clinton. Clinton’s Third Way policies explicitly distanced his administration from unions, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement that he signed after it passed with support from congressional Republicans in 1993 and the welfare reform bill that devastated the already thin safety net for poor families. Labor lobbied hard against these bills, especially NAFTA, but Clinton’s commitment to neoliberalism led him to ignore all the power the unions could muster. By the end of his second term, labor’s discontent with the Democratic Party was robust. While unions did support Al Gore in 2000, their disillusionment contributed to the Ralph Nader protest vote that helped throw the election to George W. Bush.

Barack Obama had a strikingly different background than Carter or Clinton. Obama’s history in Chicago, one of the nation’s last great union cities, made him much more familiar with and friendlier to unions than his predecessors. Obama never tried to distance himself from unions in the same way as Carter or Clinton, and they nearly all supported his two presidential campaigns, providing key election funding and get-out-the-vote operations.

Yet Obama’s support of unions, if not workers, was tepid in his first term. The political capital expended to pass the Affordable Care Act combined with the rise of the Tea Party and the unprecedented Republican stonewalling of his agenda, meant that pro-union legislation faced an uphill battle. Moreover Obama never seemed particularly interested in labor’s hopes of passing a card check bill as a method for employees to organize. And Obama’s embrace of charter schools was a slap in the face to the teachers’ unions who had supported him. His Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, consistently fought for education reform and charter schools, often in coordination with other leading Democrats such as then Newark mayor Cory Booker. And in his first term, the Department of Labor remained a backwater under Hilda Solis’s leadership, with unions once again facing disappointment.

As discussed above, Obama’s second term saw a stark improvement in labor’s agenda, but ultimately, unions remained a junior partner in the Democratic coalition. Improving their status was no politician’s top priority.

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Unions’ decline is also part of a broader failure of American industrial policy. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have any meaningful answer to the problems of capital mobility and deindustrialization. Democrats have let the working class die on the vine, offering communities in places like Youngstown, Erie, and Flint nothing but cheap bromides about getting more education and maybe some retraining classes for jobs that, if they exist at all, pay far less than their former union jobs. They have allowed companies to move wherever they want, whether to nonunion states or out of country, without consequences. Moreover they have not learned important historical lessons about how the government can influence the shift of industry to certain parts of country.  

Before World War II American industry was concentrated in the northeast and Great Lakes states. But during the war, the federal government took advantage of the rapid growth in defense plants to spread them around the country, both for military reasons and to raise the standard of living in less developed parts of the nation ranging from Alabama to Oregon. Combined with large scale government investment in power projects that provided the energy for large industry (e.g., the Tennessee Valley Authority and river development in the West), the government guided both the geographical development and industrial capacity of the United States.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have any meaningful answer to the problems of capital mobility and deindustrialization.

Then in 1965 Mexico created the Border Industrialization Program to draw U.S. industry across the border. Within just a few years, the textile and electronics industry were closing American factories and reopening them in Mexico. Heavier industry soon followed, both to Mexico and then East Asia and Central America. The Johnson administration supported the Border Industrialization Program, with most policymakers and economists assuming the economy would find new employment for displaced workers. Surprisingly little thought was put into the long-term impact of corporate flight on the American working class or the unions.

By the late 1970s, deindustrialization and mass layoffs were top stories on the nightly news, and Democrats lacked any meaningful plan to help unemployed workers. Unions lost millions of members and Democratic politicians largely shrugged their shoulders, passed some relocation assistance programs, and moved ahead with their neoliberal project to which they showed increasing commitment. Were the government to try and convince employers to locate work in these struggling communities, as they had sought to move industrial production to poor areas of the nation during World War II, it would have done a great deal to reinforce the labor movement. Instead Democrats have left unions to slowly die, meaning that with each election that sees union labor’s share of the workforce shrink, they become an increasingly junior member of the party.

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Organized labor remains useful for fundraising and get-out-the-vote operations, but unions have not held major power within the Democratic Party since 1968, when the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago aired the party’s rifts out in the open. AFL-CIO head George Meany was a great supporter of the Vietnam War and a central player in the Democratic Party machine seeking to repress the anti-Vietnam protests both outside and inside the convention hall. After the chaos of 1968, the party initiated reforms to bring more rank-and-file democracy into the party—and much of this came at the expense of Meany. He took revenge in 1972 by not supporting the antiwar and reform candidate George McGovern’s presidential nomination, leading to a long-term rift between labor and the Democratic Party.

A new generation of Democratic leaders such as Gary Hart, who had worked for McGovern, never forgave Meany and distanced themselves from unions. While the reforms that pushed dinosaurs like Meany aside were necessary for greater grassroots participation in the party and for creating the modern primary system, organized labor was and remains the primary voice representing working-class interests in American politics. The declining power of that voice paved the way for Bill Clinton and the pro-corporate New Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, which in turn helped employers control much of the NLRB-supervised election process, often delaying union recognition for years, even if the workers won their initial union election. The playing field is no longer even between unions and employers.

The reality of the post–Citizens United world even further marginalizes organized labor within the Democratic Party. Democratic candidates are increasingly reliant upon both corporate grandees and small donors to run election campaigns. But while progressives mostly like the small donor model, which worked so well for Bernie Sanders, what this really means is that legions of middle to upper-middle class white donors will be funding grassroots Democratic campaigns. Without a strong union influence over candidates, union workers, who are increasingly African-Americans and Latinos and who lack the resources to donate to candidates individually, will be shut out of the process. Such a model might be good for progressive initiatives such as gathering support for minimum wage hikes, but significantly less so for union-specific legislation such as passing card check legislation or reversing a national right-to-work bill if Trump were to sign one. If unions could not reverse legislative setbacks during the Johnson or Obama eras, it seems even less likely that they will be able to the next time Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress.

Paradoxically, unions have little choice but to continue tying their fate to the Democratic Party.

Unions are perfectly aware of their problems. Some, like the building trades, have chosen to cozy up to Republicans. They have embraced Trump’s revival of the Keystone XL Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline and lobbied him to reject a repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act presently before Congress. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has also approved of some of Trump’s anti-immigration measures, continuing a long tradition—beginning with union support of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882—of unions opposing immigration.

Other unions have embraced grassroots activism to elect liberal and friendly Democrats. The latter is unions’ best answer if combined with committing as many resources as possible to organizing. Because, paradoxically, unions have little choice but to continue tying their fate to the Democratic Party. Indeed it is even more important now than five decades ago. Even though Democrats have helped create their demise, unions’ only chance against a full-on war with the Republican Party is a moderately favorable relationship with the Democrats acting as a kind of political bulwark.

Unfortunately, as the story of the Obama administration demonstrates, it may not be enough. It is entirely possible that in a decade, remnant unions will exist in pro-union states in New England and the West Coast, but the combination of a national right-to-work bill, a hostile Supreme Court doing the same for public sector workers, and continued Republican anti-union radicalism at the state and national level may put the final nails in the coffin of the American union movement. This is a grim but not unrealistic diagnosis.

That said, the movement for workplace justice will never disappear. Whatever it looks like, be it traditional labor unions or something entirely new, it will require a political strategy that engages one or both of the nation’s major parties for it to succeed. A worker movement that attains the power unions dream about will have to organize workers in all parts of the country, it will have to leverage that power in the political system to counter corporate influence, and it will have to be inclusive of all of the nation’s workers. This is a tall task, but a necessary and noble one.