Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How labor unions and Democrats fell out of love

By Julian Zelizer
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Democrats and unions used to link their fortunes for mutual gain. That's declined
  • He says union membership down, Democrats shy away, vexing union leaders
  • But unions' core mission reflects Democrats' basic goals: financial security for workers, he says
  • Zelizer: In era of income inequality, Dems, unions should be allies, especially as GOP isn't

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Labor Day used to be a big deal for the Democratic Party. For much of the 20th century, organized labor was at the heart of Democratic politics. Unions were a driving force that gave the party its heart and its muscle.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the importance of organized labor has diminished dramatically since the 1970s. Union membership has declined from nearly 30% of the workforce in the 1960s, according to the Congressional Research Service, to what the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs at about 11% today. Politically, unions have become more controversial among Democrats: Once the status quo among Democrats, now they are often seen as outliers.

Many Democrats since the 1960s, including some environmentalists and civil rights advocates, concluded that unions were too often in opposition to their goals. Even though he came from a progressive background, President Obama has repeatedly disappointed union leaders with his failure to support key proposals that would make it easier for unions to grow.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The loss of organized labor's clout within the workforce and among the Democrats has been a devastating loss for the party. As the party turned away from this constituency and hesitated to support policies that would reverse the damaging trends that have hindered union membership, they have lost an animating force that could help sustain them in their struggles against a rightward bound Republican Party.

The relationship has a long, important history. The union movement was pivotal to the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. FDR and northern Democrats pursued policies greatly benefiting the organization of industrial workers in Northern states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act), which formally gave workers the right to join a union and created the National Labor Relations Board, ensuring that employers allowed legitimate elections to take place. In 1936, Roosevelt said: "The Fourth of July commemorates our political freedom. Labor Day symbolizes our determination to achieve an economic freedom for the average man which will give his political freedom reality."

While FDR's policies benefited workers, including the new Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, labor came out in droves for the Democrats. They rallied workers on Election Day, encouraged their members to show support for the party that had helped them, raised money to help Democrats succeed, and their lobbyists on Capitol Hill constantly helped round up votes for a liberal agenda that ranged from bills that directly benefited workers to other measures with even greater constituencies. At the height of its power, the civil rights movement relied heavily on union leaders like Walter Reuther to win support for legislation in Congress.

Unions were not simply useful allies; their core mission embodied the basic goals of the Democratic Party after FDR. The entire point of collective bargaining was to create an economic system that would ensure a base of financial security for a large number of workers. Unions could fight for the kinds of jobs that would create a ladder for hardworking Americans to enter into the middle class.

Supreme Court gives blow to unions
Inside Man: Unions

Without unions and the kinds of policies they helped Democrats find support for, leaders like Reuther realized, there would be very little to prevent the middle class from gradually withering away. From a very early moment in the century—long before economist Thomas Piketty was publishing his controversial book on inequality, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" —unions insisted that the organizational basis of economic opportunity depended on workers acting in unison.

The situation for organized labor took a terrible turn starting in the 1970s. Many of the industries that were most heavily unionized in Northern states weakened. Owners moved factories and their jobs to Southern states, which had tough right-to-work laws that made it illegal to force workers in an organized workplace to join the union and pay dues, or transported business overseas.

Many of the most vibrant parts of the economy, such as the service and high-tech sector, did not offer unionized jobs. Federal policies were no longer hospitable to unions. Conservatives turned to legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) to squeeze union power. Some workers from unions turned to the Republican Party as part of the backlash to liberalism that unfolded after the 1960s.

As labor became less important, a large number of Democrats became cool to unions. President Carter angered union leaders in the late 1970s when he pushed for fiscal austerity and didn't back legislation that would have protected boycotts. President Clinton clashed with unions over issues, including the NAFTA free trade treaty, while President Obama disappointed many when he didn't push for the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 and 2010.

This tension is one that Democrats need to ease. Not only would the party benefit from healthier, more harmonious ties to the union movement, but also benefit from making the expansion of union membership and protection of labor rights a more central part of its national agenda.

In an era when so many Americans worry about growing economic inequality and are desperate for answers to how the federal government and the private marketplace can stop the damage to the middle class, stronger support for unions would be a powerful step for Democrats to take.

"As unions shrank," wrote Harold Meyerson, "inequality grew." Democrats could offer a real alternative. It would offer a stark contrast to a Republican Party that has been extremely aggressive, at the national and state level, in its attacks on unions and the organization of the workforce.

Only if Democrats take this step will they be able to nurture the part of their political coalition that was once so strong but is now so frail. Only then will Democrats once again start to celebrate and appreciate the importance of Labor Day to their party.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT