OPINION: Now is the time for Congress to protect union rights


Labor unions have enjoyed plenty of time in the spotlight over the last year, with high-profile union drives at Amazon warehouses and Starbucks stores across the country and strikes at snack food factories and John Deere manufacturing plants. Public support is higher than it’s been since the 1960s, with about 68 percent of Americans telling Gallup that they approve of unions.

But despite all those popular actions and the high-profile media coverage that accompanied them, American union membership in 2021 actually declined by more than 240,000 workers, falling back to 2019 levels. Only about one in 10 American workers belongs to a labor union. How can this be?

Pitchfork Economics host Nick Hanauer says it has everything to do with power.

“The reason that unions are getting less powerful is that political leaders in both parties are passing laws that make unions less powerful, or are not passing laws to maintain the power of folks to organize,” Hanauer said. And he’s absolutely correct.

The past four decades have seen attacks on union power at almost every level of government. Conservative think tanks promoted so-called “right-to-work” laws on a state level, ultimately making it harder for workers to form a union in more than half of the United States. The Supreme Court has consistently made it harder for unions to organize and collect dues over the past 10 years, and their pace of anti-union legislation has only sped up since the conservative majority was bolstered under President Trump.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency began with a brutal faceoff in which he successfully ended a Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union strike by threatening to fire every single air traffic controller in the United States. Presidents that followed Reagan — Republican and Democrat alike — either continued his push to erode union power or simply failed to shore up union power.

But for the first time in my lifetime, the tide is turning, ever so slightly, in favor of unions. In lockstep with rising pro-union worker sentiment, President Biden is shaping up to be the most pro-Labor president since FDR. Biden hasn’t been shy about encouraging workers to unionize, but it’s not just lip service: He’s also taken concrete steps toward making it easier for federal workers and employees of businesses that contract with the federal government to unionize, and for encouraging Labor-friendly policies in businesses that are under consideration for government loans and contracts.

This would be a huge deal for many millions of American workers — not just the millions of federal employees and contractors who are directly covered by the policies Biden has promoted. Studies show that unions raise pay and improve working conditions for all workers in a region, including non-union members.

But there’s only so much presidents can do on their own. To truly empower unions, Congress must enact pro-union protections into law that roll back some of the anti-Labor attacks passed on the state level. Early last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill called the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act that would make it easier for workers nationwide to form a union, but unfortunately the bill is still languishing in the Senate.

With unions more popular than they’ve been in nearly 50 years, this year’s midterm elections offer lawmakers an opportunity to make an affirmative case for unions directly to the American people.

By running on the PRO Act and other protections, by standing alongside Starbucks and Amazon workers who are trying to unionize their workplaces, and by talking up the bigger paychecks and benefits packages that come with union membership, politicians will have an opportunity to own an issue that enjoys widespread support among the American people, regardless of party.

(Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast.)

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