"Male picketers on strike march with signs that support unionization." by Kheel Center, Cornell University Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse. [No changes made.]
A right-wing populism and post-COVID/inflation blowback resurrection.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 71% of Americans support labor unions. This is statistically significant for two reasons: This is the highest level of public backing of unions since 1965 and, as of 2021, there has been a 57% increase in union election petitions filed, as reported by the National Labor Relations Board. There are two key factors in this surge in participation and national support for unions: Record corporate profits during post-pandemic shutdown, which shifted drastically after corporations asked workers to sacrifice or be furloughed or ended up being laid off during the crisis, and the solidarity among political parties on the subject. Up until Donald Trump’s complete 180 on working-class rhetoric – first as a candidate in 2015/16 and as president from 2016 through 2020 – the previous pro-management Republican Party has now joined Democrats in competing in this field.
Timing and lack of opposition have led to a complete resurgence in the power, influence, and popularity of unions. Over the past few months two major unions have struck against their employers, garnering increased press coverage and a windfall of public sympathy and solidarity: the Writers Guild of America, which settled last week with Hollywood production companies after being on strike since May 2, and what was once the most powerful union on planet earth, the United Auto Workers, their current standoff with auto manufacturers in Detroit continues (and has not only gotten support from the president of the United States, but his likely Republican opponent).
Both President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump have given vocal support to the union, and in an unprecedented move for a sitting president, Biden spoke on their picket line this week while Trump went to Detroit to ostensibly support the strike, but instead spoke at a non-union management conference. While this is a classic grifting Trump move to say he is for a popular movement but knows his record says otherwise so avoids being booed off the stage and puts on a con show instead, the leaders of both parties are on board with unions in both image and branding.
It is an astonishing comeback for labor unions, who, since the Ronald Reagan administration, gutted laws protecting unions and firing 11,000 public workers during an air traffic controllers strike in 1981 saw a severe downturn in labor union support nationally. The over 50-year Republican battle with unions, seen then as an early 20th century Communist off shoot of post-Industrial Revolution blowback, was the core of conservative politics. For a long time Reagan was a paragon of conservativism for his bold actions 40 years ago, but that all ended with the take-over of the Republican Party by Trump and the death of modern conservatism with his populist stance. Now a large portion of the party, which has become a populist cult of personality that spent decades fighting unions, stumble over one another to be on their side.
This is understandable if not cynical analysis since this is precisely where the political winds are blowing. During last year’s record inflation, price gouging by corporations – especially the auto industry – created record profits for management with zero “trickle down” to workers. Just like the advent of streaming services and the use of content created by entertainment writers, wherein the boom in repeated viewings of their work garnered them no extra pay, autoworkers saw exploitation and acted. The times have always dictated support for unions, which, as stated, after the Industrial Revolution saw the dehumanization of the worker class, lack of safety regulations, child labor, and other aspects of the period, along with political uprising in Socialist and later Communist philosophies affecting the order of the day. The same for post-World War II and its exploitation of the female labor force and returning GI’s from combat. Unions were never more powerful during the middle class/manufacturing boom of the 1950s into the early sixties; then came the outing of organized crime infiltration in labor unions, specifically auto workers after the asinine Volstead Act bankrolled their ascent, and the general malaise among union workers, which eroded public support.
Among many other factors, this gave rise to modern conservatism and the over 60% negative view of labor unions from the 1980s until two years ago, when the once in a century COVID-19 pandemic shut the nation down, closed manufacturing, stymied shipping, and ground the international economy to halt. Workers, both essential and non-essential, bound together in a direct backlash against companies gouging the American consumer while mistreating labor.
This is, of course, not across the board, but the branding and public perception of management versus labor shifted dramatically, forcing both political parties to rush to their aid in hopes of remaining relevant. While Democrats have been to a fault been the part of labor over the more corporate-minded Republican Party for a century, there is suddenly little area of disagreement on what unions mean to their success at the ballot box.
Make no mistake – the political might of unions and the reason for their increased popularity are due to the Republican Party’s at least rhetorical about-face on them. For the most part, Trump’s government was not too far removed from Reagan’s in its ignoring and in some cases attacking worker’s rights, coupled with the massive corporate tax breaks over middle class relief… but since Trump is a media figure and his ham-fisted support of truckers, Johnny Lunch-Pail, barking about the return of manufacturing over outsourcing, and the fear of immigrants in the labor force pulled in the Rust Belt states to make him president, the Republican Party can no longer politically sustain an opposition to labor unions.
For the first time in many generations, labor unions are back and perhaps bigger than ever as now they have no political headwinds, not to mention low unemployment figures and inflation sinking from 9% to 3% in the last two years to bring them back into the fore. And with a presidential election a year away, their voice and influence have become paramount.