Labor unions and national reform

This week in North Philly Notes, Dominic Wells, author of From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging, considers how labor unions will fare under President Biden.

Labor unions have been on a steady decline for decades, but with the Biden administration there is a renewed hope in the labor movement for a reverse of the trend. Joe Biden has promised to be a pro-union president, proposing to strengthen the right to organize and to hold employers accountable for violating labor laws. 

Although there is no doubt a Biden administration is good news for organized labor, there is good reason to question whether Biden’s pro-labor agenda will come into fruition. Democrats have been promising to protect collective bargaining without delivering on those promises for years. While in office, President Barack Obama promised to join the picket line if American workers were being denied their rights, but when historically pro-union states in the Midwest began stripping away collective bargaining rights, Obama left his picket sign in his closet. 

The strength of organized labor today is in the public sector, which is largely governed by state legislation. In my book, From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging, I analyze the expansion and restriction of collective bargaining rights for public employees from 1960 into the 2010s. I show that there was a time when republicans, at least at the state-level, viewed collective bargaining in the public sector as a legitimate practice. Faced with consistent strike activity from public employees, republican governors and state legislatures were willing to support collective bargaining. Pressure from unions and provisions that prohibited striking helped make collective bargaining legislation bipartisan in many states. 

By the 2010s, bipartisan support for labor unions was nearly nonexistent. Republican state legislatures, with the help of model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), led efforts to weaken public employee unions. In From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging, I analyze two of the most high profile cases in stripping away the rights of public employees, Ohio Senate Bill 5 and Wisconsin Act 10. These cases demonstrate how labor unions can be successful (or unsuccessful) in protecting their rights and the Ohio case shows that, though unlikely, a bipartisan coalition to protect collective bargaining is still possible. 

Victories for labor unions in the 21st Century have mostly equated to protecting their own existence. There have been few legislative victories expanding rights in recent years. One of the rare successes for organized labor was in Nevada, where rights were extended to state employees in 2019. Outside of formal bargaining rights, teacher unions won raises and other favorable legislation following strike efforts in West Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado in 2018.    

A Biden administration is certainly better for organized labor than the Trump administration, in the public sector and private sector. It means labor unions will have a seat at the table again. It means a more labor friendly National Labor Relations Board. It means there will not be a national right-to-work law. However, if history is any indication, it is unlikely that there will be any national legislation expanding collective bargaining and the right to organize. These battles will likely continue to be fought in state legislatures. Biden is proposing federal guarantees to the right to bargain for teachers, firefighters, and police officers, but his administration and the new Democratic Party controlled Congress will be focused on the public health crisis at the start of his term. If major labor reforms at the national-level are going to happen, they will need to happen in the first two years before Democrats likely lose their slim majorities in at least one chamber of Congress. There is reason for members of the labor movement to be hopeful for national reform, but as a member of a public employee union myself, I will not be holding my breath. 

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