Photo: AP

Rising inequality. The decline of labor unions. And the Democratic Party’s inability to win elections down south. Are these things somehow.... related. Indeed!

America’s age of inequality began in earnest around 1980, when Reagan took office and locked down a generational shift in the conventional wisdom about capitalism itself. It marked the end of the New Deal era, the death of the prevailing idea that government exists to protect and serve working people, and the installation of the (still prevailing) idea that free markets are the solution to all of our problems, and the government exists to facilitate the ability of corporations to do whatever they wish in their quest to maximize profits. As the political influence of the New Deal generation was upended, the states in the South went farther and farther to right side of the political spectrum. The racism was no longer leavened with any meaningful left wing economic populism. It allowed the Republican party to lock in its domination on the South that exists to this day.

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When Reagan took office, about one in four American workers were union members. Today, about one in ten American workers are union members. This decline in bargaining power for the working class is one of the most important reasons for the staggering rise in economic inequality during the same time period. All of this has been accompanied by a steady campaign by the right to make labor laws more hostile to union organizing. No tool has been more valuable for that purpose than “right to work” laws at the state level, which make it extremely difficult for unions to fund themselves and maintain power over time, by undermining their ability to collect dues. Today, the entire South is “right to work.”

It’s not hard to see that this is all a cycle: Unions decline; the economic power of working class people declines; the Democratic party weakens; Republicans push through laws that further weaken unions; etc. One of the things that sucks about the modern Democratic Party is that it has utterly failed to protect the ability of workers to organize in much of the country. Now, a new research paper by three economists quantifies exactly how counterproductive the failure to protect organized labor has been for the Democratic Party itself.

The researchers find that the passage of “right to work” laws in states are a devastatingly effective tool for helping to entrench the Republican party in power. Specifically, the study finds that “right-to-work laws reduce Democratic Presidential vote shares by 3.5 percentage points. We find similar effects in US Senate, US House, and Gubernatorial races, as well as on state legislative control. Turnout is also 2 to 3 percentage points lower in right-to-work counties after those laws pass.” They identify exactly why this happens: “Right to work” laws not only lead to lower union membership, but they also shrink overall campaign contributions to Democrats, make get-out-the-vote efforts less likely, and rot away the pool of potential political leaders that the party should be drawing from. “Fewer working class candidates serve in state legislatures and Congress” as a result, the authors note, “and state policy moves in a more conservative direction following the passage of right-to-work laws.”

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This all illustrates the basic principle that labor unions are not just tools that get working people better contracts and pay; they are organizations that are able to produce political power—through donations, through grassroots efforts from members, and, in the long run, by teaching regular people the power of organizing, and producing crops of people interested in how to use public policy on behalf of the working class. Declining union membership is a cascading catastrophe for society itself, and for the Democratic Party. It sets off a long chain of negative effects that cannot be made up for just by having the AFL-CIO pour ever more money into presidential campaigns as union membership declines. The only way to turn this dynamic around is to organize more union members. Since “right to work” laws make it very difficult to organize new union members down south, it becomes that much more important to organize even more new union members in all of the state that do not have those laws, in order to build a labor movement strong enough to raise the money and get out the vote and train the leaders to make the Democratic Party strong enough to get rid of the god damn “right to work laws.”

Which, as a matter of fact, the Senate Democrats advocated this year. This year, when they have no power. This year, when they have already allowed unions to be stomped on for decades. This year is better than no year. But we’ll see what happens when they’re back in power. The track record is not promising.

Power is not built by shaking down Hollywood millionaire donors for money to run campaign ads. Power is built by organizing regular people year after year after year. Conveniently, that is exactly what unions do. Wanna help them out?

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[The full research paper, via Sean McElwee]