Over the past several decades, union membership has steadily declined. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates that in 1983, 20.1% of employed Americans were members of a union. By 2019, that share had decreased by roughly half to 10.3%.
But as wealth inequality accelerates, essential workers organize for pandemic protections and President-elect Biden makes promises to be "the most pro-union president you've ever seen," people like Democrat Congressmen Mark Pocan of Wisconsin predict potential for a 21st-century labor movement.
On Nov 13, Pocan and Rep. Donald Norcross of New Jersey (a Democrat who is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) announced the creation of the Labor Caucus. Both longtime union members, the pair hope to represent the interests of organized labor in the House and estimate that the caucus will include at least 50 of their colleagues and four other co-chairs.
"People ultimately want to make sure they have safe working conditions and good benefits and wages and the ability to have some say in their workplace," says Pocan. "Unions are the best way to deliver that."
A pro-union president
Pocan started his business, Budget Signs & Specialties, in 1988 and has been a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades for more than three decades. He says that being a union member has been key to the success of his business.
"I've been in business over 30 years, and I can tell you that one of the biggest challenges any business faces is hiring and retaining good employees," he says. "When you can staff up and have people who last with you for long periods of time, that is really important and saves you a lot in training and other things that you know would take away from your ultimate profitability."
He continues, "When people are treated well, everyone does a good job together, so from a small business perspective, it's really valuable to have unions advocating for a voice in your workplace and good benefits and good pay."
This philosophy, that labor unions are both good for businesses and workers, is one that appears to be shared by President-elect Biden who began his campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Biden has issued his support for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act's (PRO Act) and his website includes numerous union-friendly policies including promises to enact financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers' organizing efforts, provide a federal guarantee for public sector employees to organize and ban "right to work" laws.
Trump, in contrast, has clashed with organized labor on multiple occasions. This summer, his administration fought with unions over what many saw as a lack of pandemic protections for workers. Most recently, his administration proposed easing regulations for tipped workers.
In a Nov. 16 meeting with business leaders such as General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Target chief executive Brian Cornell as well as labor leaders such as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry, and United Auto Workers president Rory Gamble, Biden said that "unions are going to have increased power" in his administration.
"I want you to know I'm a union guy," said Biden, adding "that's not anti-business."
Challenges and opportunities
To be sure, the labor union movement has significant challenges ahead.
"There's been ongoing organized attacks on working people on behalf of Republican legislatures and governors, including in my state of Wisconsin, for years. They destroyed public employee unions back in 2010 and then Wisconsin became a 'Right to Work' state, which we never were. They even went after prevailing wage laws," says Pocan.
"We've seen this across the country. But public opinion for people having a voice in their workplace through labor unions is at almost an all-time high. It's really up there because people have seen those attacks have really made it harder for people to get a fair share and a fair shake in their workplace."
He adds that labor union advocates "have strong public support and we just have to make sure that we actually deliver on some of the things that people want us to deliver on."
Pocan says those deliverables include passing the PRO Act, raising the national minimum wage and reversing labor-related executive orders passed by outgoing President Donald Trump.
And while some have speculated about infighting within the Democratic party between centrists and progressives, Pocan says labor issues provide opportunity for common ground.
"I think union issues in many ways fill some of the alleged divides," he says, pointing out that his district includes both the urbanized city of Madison, Wisconsin and rural agricultural communities. "These issues are core kitchen-table economic issues that people who don't live and breathe politics talk about on a regular basis. And I think the more we address those issues as the really important priority they are, the better off we are."