Kenneth Peres

Here's how Democrats can overcome their key weaknesses with voters

Democrats—and many others—are justifiably exultant because their presidential candidate obtained the largest popular vote total ever and toppled an incumbent. However, the 2020 election results also revealed that the Democratic Party's victory was quite fragile and might not be sustainable in the future. The most glaring problem is that the Democratic Party has failed to address adequately the economic condition of millions of workers. This article will examine the roots of that weakness and what progressives can do to pressure both President-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic Party to adopt policies that directly address the needs of working people. Such a program would enable the Democratic Party to build a sustainable majority by serving the interests of the many millions of workers and small businesses that inhabit Main Street as opposed to the thousands of corporate executives and billionaire donors that inhabit Wall Street.

The 2020 Election Revealed Significant Democratic Party Weaknesses. The most terrifying result was that 74.2 million people were receptive to and voted for a party and a presidential candidate with strong authoritarian tendencies, an increase of 11.2 million over President Donald Trump's showing in 2016. While Biden won 81.3 million votes, exit polls revealed a significant portion of his vote was anti-Trump as opposed to pro-Biden. The importance of the anti-Trump vote also is supported by the fact that Biden had no coattails—Democrats lost ground in the House and many state legislatures. Second, Biden and the Democratic congressional candidates failed to overwhelm Republicans in swing states and districts during a perfect storm of crises: pandemic, economic, climate, and racial and gender inequities. A party that cannot parlay this historically unique set of crises into solid swing state majorities is a party in trouble. Racial and cultural issues help explain the weak showing by Democrats in the swing states. However, this article will focus on another problem that also helps explain what happened: Democrats failed to address adequately the everyday economic concerns of millions of people and basically ceded these issues to Republicans. Indeed, half the voters felt that Trump would handle the economy better than Biden. The economy remains by far, the number one issue among all Americans—even outstripping the pandemic. The Democratic Party will not be able to obtain sustainable majorities in the future until it actually advocates and delivers policies that improve the economic circumstances of working people.

The Lack of Trust on Economic Issues Is Based on 45 years of Corporatist Domination of the Democratic Party. Corporatists have dominated the Democrat Party since President Jimmy Carter. Big Business was a critical source of funding for Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Upon election, each of these presidents appointed corporate-allied officials to key positions and enacted pro-corporate policies. The financial sector illustrates this dynamic. President Carter (not Ronald Reagan) initiated the deregulation of the financial sector. President Clinton not only raked in record contributions from the financial sector, but also appointed Wall Street-allied individuals to key positions in the administration. Clinton became the biggest financial sector deregulator of all, enabling an orgy of financial speculation and instability not seen since the 1920s. And while Wall Street chafed at the mild reforms of Dodd-Frank, the financial sector welcomed the Obama administration's delivery of multi-trillion-dollar bailouts, the refusal to indict any Wall Street officials for fraud, and his appointment of Wall Street connected individuals to key administrative positions.

Meanwhile, each of these Democratic presidents failed to prioritize and pass significant labor reforms which would have benefited millions of workers. To make matters even worse, Clinton literally pushed through the devastating NAFTA and China trade deals that led to the elimination or displacement of 4.4 million jobs while Obama advocated even bigger free trade deals.

Such corporatist policies have been devastating for millions of workers and small businesses but very beneficial to big business and the billionaire donor elite. Consequently, economic inequality has reached historically high levels in terms of income, wealth, gender, and race. The economic situation of most working families is appalling. For example, almost 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, 70% will have difficulty raising a few hundred dollars for an emergency, and the average American now dies with $62,000 of debt. The median net worth (assets minus liabilities) of American families is just $52,700 while the minimum net worth of the top 1% is $10.4 million.

The Democratic Party's adoption of corporatist policies blew apart its façade as a representative of working-class interests; instead, it became a more compassionate champion of corporations and the wealthy. The sense of outrage felt by workers against the Democratic Party for trade deals and a worsening economic situation was palpable and helped to undermine the party's hold over working-class voters, especially in swing states. Unfortunately, the general skepticism about Democrats and the economy was not helped by Biden's ties to Wall Street and support for policies aiding corporations to the detriment of workers including the bankruptcy bill and free trade deals.

Democrats Must Advocate Economic Policies that will Primarily Benefit Working People. Democrats must directly address their weakness on working class economic issues if they want to develop sustainable majorities in future elections. During the campaign, Biden promised to create millions of green jobs, increase wages, and improve working conditions for all working people—as well as address equity issues. The policies contained in the Biden platform would benefit all portions of the working class—regardless of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual identity divisions—and create some movement toward unity where Republicans have sown hate and fragmentation. This was the most progressive, worker-centered platform for a Democratic presidential candidate over the last 45 years. Unfortunately, Biden and the Democrats did not focus on these issues for much of the campaign; instead, they chose to attack Trump and focused on the pandemic. In this way, the Democrats ceded basic economic issues to the Republicans and allowed them to falsely pit pandemic concerns against economic concerns.

Yet, the Democrats should not abandon this progressive platform. The current crisis is profound, and Democrats will not necessarily get another chance. There will be many roadblocks to such a change in policy priorities—the narrow Democratic advantage in the House and a tied or Republican majority in the Senate. But progressives should push Biden to be a bold, strong, and public proponent of pro-worker policies—and at least to follow through on his campaign promises.

  • Good Jobs/Full Employment. Biden's platform included massive investments in green infrastructure and Covid-19 relief that would create millions of decent paying jobs. Such job-related programs would set the country on a path to full employment. Conversely, the Biden administration must be prevented from entering devastating, job-killing trade deals that actually reward corporations for offshoring jobs and harming the environment. Democrats should loudly proclaim that there should be a job for everyone who is able to work—and excoriate those who oppose such a principle.
  • Fair Wages/Workers Rights. The broadest and most effective way to increase wages is a tight labor market. According to an Economic Policy Institute analysis, wages for the bottom 90% of workers grew the most during the low unemployment years of 1995-2000 and 2013-2019. These 11 years accounted for almost all the wage growth of the bottom 90% from 1979-2019. This is why full employment policies are the broadest way to increase incomes for the mass of working people. Democrats should also champion bills to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour and expand the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain. Democrats should loudly proclaim that all workers receive a fair day's wage for a fair day's work and have the right to organize—and excoriate those who oppose such a principle.
  • Healthy and Safe Working Conditions. The Biden administration must overturn all Trump's deregulatory attacks on protections for workers, consumers, and a clean and healthy environment, and introduce legislation to expand the reach and enforcement of such basic protections. Again, Democrats should loudly proclaim that all Americans have a basic right to a clean and healthy environment at work, at home, and in their communities—and excoriate those who oppose such a principle.

These policies would have a material and measurable impact on millions of working families. And would go a long way to counter the perception of Democrats as mouthing support for workers while aiding big business and the billionaire donor elite.

How to Deal with Republican Intransigence—Mobilize Against a Do-Nothing Senate and For Worker Centered Policies. Of course, such a program will be bitterly opposed by Republicans, corporations, and the billionaire donor elite. However, Biden is not powerless. During the 1948 presidential election, President Harry Truman was way behind in the polls. He chose to go on the offensive. He campaigned against the "do-nothing, good for nothing" Republican-dominated 80th Congress. Truman also publicly advocated for civil rights legislation, the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, and farm aid programs. Through his attacks on the Republicans and support for progressive policies, Truman helped to revive the New Deal coalition of southern blacks, labor unionists, and farmers. He ended up winning in a stunning upset. A similar mobilization campaign that supports pro-worker policies and opposes Republican intransigence during the next two years of Biden's administration and for the 2022 elections would be critical for the Democratic Party's future hopes.

Consequences for Democrats If they Do Not Focus on Working Class Economic Issues. The most likely scenario for the Biden administration is that it will follow a moderately liberal corporatist strategy while attempting to make some inroads on economic and social equity issues. Biden has already indicated that key administration positions will be filled by people with whom he is comfortable—a diverse set of mostly moderate to somewhat liberal corporatists who will be competent but not rock the boat of corporate power. However, he cannot afford to alienate progressives—not because of the power of progressive politicians but because of the power of progressive movements.

Therefore, he will seek a united front by focusing on issues and areas of concern for both corporatists and progressives. Such efforts will include addressing the pandemic through medical and economic policies; limiting corporate excesses through regulations and administrative actions to undo the damage done by Trump; strengthening Obamacare; and advocating some progressive policies such as criminal justice reform and reversing Trump's corporate tax cut. The corporate media will applaud this direction as being pragmatic—especially considering a Republican or tied Senate, a slim Democratic house majority, and an overall conservative judiciary. Of course, these policies are far better than anything offered by Trump. However, such a program will neither fundamentally challenge corporate power nor significantly improve the economic well-being of millions of workers. The Democrats will once again prove that they cannot positively change the economic conditions that matter most to working people. Just as the failures of Carter set the stage for Reagan; Clinton set the stage for Bush; and Obama set the stage for Trump—a failed Biden term could set the stage for someone far worse than Trump. Throughout his long political career, Biden tended to emphasize incremental policy changes and personal political relationships rather than structural change and mass mobilization. But at this point in history such an approach could lead to disaster. Muddling through is not a real option.

What Progressives Can Do—Mobilize. Progressives cannot just sit by and expect Biden or the Democratic Party to do the right thing. We should learn the lessons of past progressive movements—mass mobilization especially by the labor movement pushed Franklin Roosevelt to become FDR and enact the New Deal; mass mobilization especially by the civil rights movement pushed President Lyndon Johnson to become LBJ and enact the Great Society. An insightful analysis by my CWA colleague Bob Master examines the importance of mass mobilization in turning these presidents into transformational figures.

One successful example of mass mobilization and activism is provided by the interaction between FDR and legendary labor and civil rights leader, A. Philip Randolph as related in a article. In the early stages of WWII, more than 250,000 defense jobs were closed to Blacks regardless of qualifications. They were also denied placement even in unskilled jobs. Only 240 of 107,000 workers in the aircraft industry were Black. A U.S. employment service survey revealed that more than half of the defense companies stated they would not hire Blacks. In response, A. Philip Randolph and other leaders met with FDR who said he sympathized but refused to take any action. Randolph then called for a march that would bring 100,000 Blacks to Washington, D.C. demanding an end to discrimination in the Armed Services and defense industry. "The Roosevelts feared the march would result in a race war in the nation's capital that would prove an embarrassment to a country that held itself up as a model of democracy." Roosevelt finally relented, issuing Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in the defense industries. Randolph and his colleagues then canceled the march. The lesson is clear: "the labor and civil rights leaders accomplished their goals not through benign persuasion but by an unyielding threat" of mass mobilization and activism.

It is unclear that even mass mobilization could make a significant impact on a Biden administration given the opposition of the corporate elite that has dominated both parties. Maybe the Democratic Party is so tied into corporate power that it is not capable of reclaiming the progressive domestic policy legacy of FDR or LBJ. However, there is no other alternative vehicle for progressive policy at this point in time. The failure to address our various crises now could lead to global devastation. There is really no choice. Continued mass education and mobilization can only strengthen the progressive movement and, in this way, possibly save the Democratic Party by forcing it to meet the needs of working families.

Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, made a statement about the labor movement that applies to the progressive movement in general: "Our task, is to build a labor movement that sees itself truly as a labor movement—not just a collection of separate unions. For years we outsourced our power while the bosses were outsourcing our jobs. We spent too much time trying to cut deals with the boss or build favor with politicians and too little time organizing members to fight for what we deserve. People think power is a limited resource but using power builds power."

Kenneth R. Peres retired as chief economist of the Communications Workers of America. Formerly, he served as economist for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Montana House Select Committee on Economic Development, and the Montana Alliance for Progressive Policy. Ken has held teaching positions at the University of Montana, St. John's University, Chief Dull Knife College, and the City University of New York. He obtained a PhD in economics from the New School in New York City.

A vote for Trump and the GOP is a vote to destroy unions

The Republican Party and President Trump have declared war on unions. The two prongs of their crusade include stacking the deck against unions by selecting anti-union/pro-corporate ideologues to key positions in each branch of government and, second, revamping federal laws, rules and regulations to rig the system in favor of corporations and against unions. A second Trump term would be like the first term – except on steroids. The administration will fully subvert the rights of workers to organize; bargain collectively; improve their wages, benefits and working conditions; and improve the quality of life of all workers. Conversely, the power of corporations will be expanded. The ability of unions to represent the interests of workers may never recover from such an onslaught. Union supporters and leaders must do all they can to ensure that Trump and the Republicans running for the Senate are defeated in the coming election and prepare a massive mobilization response to any attempt by Trump to steal a close election.


The famous saying "personnel is policy" is quite relevant to the Trump administration. Trump and the Republican majorities in the Senate and Supreme Court have combined to stack the deck against unions and rig the system in favor of Big Business. Anti-union appointees now dominate all three branches of the federal government: the executive branch (the White House and federal administrative agencies); the legislative branch (Senate); and the judicial branch including majorities on the Supreme Court and federal appellate courts.

EXECUTIVE BRANCH – Anti-Union/Pro-Corporate Appointees Are in Charge

All the major executive branch agencies dealing with labor related issues are led by appointees who had proven anti-union/pro-corporate records as illustrated below.

White House Staff. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was a member of Congress from 2013-2020. He was given an 8% lifetime rating by the AFL-CIO and 0% by the Communications Workers of America. Conversely, Meadows was given a lifetime rating of 77% by the US Chamber of Commerce and 95% by Freedom Works (a notoriously conservative, libertarian and anti-union group that was associated with the Tea Party and later Donald Trump).

Department of Labor (DOL) The DOL enforces 180 federal laws and thousands of regulations covering 10 million employers and 150 million workers.

  • Secretary of Labor. Eugene Scalia had a 20-year history of working for Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, a prominent corporate law firm, where he fought against worker protections such as health and safety, retirement security and collective bargaining rights.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA is being temporarily run by Loren Sweatt who has dutifully implemented the administration's anti-worker policies and expressed the desire to stay in her position if there is a second Trump term.
  • Wage and Hour Division head administrator, Cheryl Stanton, spent her career defending employers in wage and hour cases.

National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB is a New Deal agency established to enforce the National Labor Relations Act which gave most private sector workers the right to join a union and take action to protect and improve their wages, benefits and working conditions.

  • Chair and Board Member John Ring previously served as a partner with the notoriously anti-union law firm of Jackson, Lewis whose website stated that he specialized in representing management interests, "most notably in the context of workforce restructuring [layoffs] and multiemployer bargaining."
  • Board member William Emanuel was a partner at the union-busting law firm of Little, Mendelson.
  • Board Member Marvin Kaplan was a government lawyer working for anti-union members of Congress helping them draft legislation to weaken worker protections.
  • General Counsel Peter Robb spent much of his career as a management-side labor and employment lawyer. Robb was a key figure at the NLRB under President Reagan defending the administration's 1981 firing of more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and legitimizing the "permanent replacement" of striking workers.

Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's regulation of pollutants directly impacts workers in the workplace and in their communities.

  • EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. According to, Andrew Wheeler was a former energy industry lobbyist where he lobbied against mine safety regulations, opposed the Obama administration's attempt to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, and fought for federal subsidies for coal plants.
  • Susan Bodine, the EPA's assistant administrator, formerly worked for Barnes & Thornburg, a law and lobbying firm that represented the American Forest & Paper Association. Many other EPA appointees at EPA have corporate ties.

United States Postal Service. The Trump administration has chosen clearly anti-union, pro-corporate individuals to key positions.

  • USPS Board of Governors is dominated by Trump appointed pro-corporate members. The board chair Robert Duncan was CEO of Inez Deposit Bank; CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (a lobbying group representing coal and utility corporations infamous for its denial of the climate crisis); and former chair of the Republican National Committee.
  • Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was CEO and is still a major investor in XPO Logistics, a company that does business with USPS. DeJoy received $1.7 to $7 million from the company last year. USPS has increased its business with XPO since DeJoy became Postmaster General.

Department of Education. Secretary Betsy DeVos is a very rich and prolific Republican party funder. Her father was a billionaire industrialist and her husband was the billionaire founder and CEO of Amway. She has a long history of supporting, funding and founding anti-union and pro-privatization groups.

LEGISLATIVE BRANCH: Anti-Union/Pro Corporate Republicans Control the Senate

Anti-union/pro-corporate Republicans dominate the Senate. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has enormous power. For example, he alone determines whether bills can even be considered and what amendments can be offered in the Senate. McConnell has a lifetime AFL-CIO rating of just 12% and a US Chamber of Commerce rating of 91%. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has significant power over labor related issues. The HELP committee is chaired by Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Alexander has a lifetime AFL-CIO rating of 19% and a US Chamber of Commerce rating of 93%.

The core of the Republican Party strength is concentrated in the 27 Right to Work states. As discussed in a previous article, Right to Work laws are designed to weaken unions by cutting their revenue and membership. Unions represent just 7.5% of the workforce in right to work states but almost 16% in "fair share" states. The 27 "right to work" states account for 83% of the currently seated Republican Senators and 70% of their Representatives. In 2016, Trump carried 25 of the 27 these states.

JUDICIAL BRANCH – Anti-Union/Pro Business Judges Dominate the Supreme Court and Appellate Courts

The Republican Party has worked for a long time to ensure that the federal court system is dominated by conservative, pro-business/anti-union judges over the long term. Indeed, Republicans basically packed the court system when Senate Majority Leader McConnell refused to allow the Senate to vote on 105 judicial vacancies during the Obama administration which were later filled by Trump appointees.

Supreme Court. The Supreme Court now has 6 Republican appointed justices and 3 Democratic Justices. Each of the three Trump appointees had a proven anti-union/pro-corporate bias before being nominated.

  • Amy Coney Barrett. During her term on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett ruled in favor of corporate interest more than 75% of the time. She ruled that corporations are entitled to set job requirements that exclude older workers and that they may segregate workers at different locations by race. She has also expressed support for striking the entire Affordable Care Act which would deprive health insurance for 20 million people and end protections for 100 million people with pre-existing conditions.
  • Neil Gorsuch. During his term on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Gorsuch repeatedly ruled against workers and in favor of corporations. For example, Gorsuch dissented from a majority ruling upholding a National Labor Relations Board decision that an employer must give full back pay to workers it illegally fired for union activity. Gorsuch dissented in cases in which the circuit court majority supported pro-worker NLRB decisions stating that the NLRB exceeded the scope of its authority. However, Gorsuch made no such dissent when the court ruled in favor of NLRB decisions that supported management.
  • Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh served on the extremely important US District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This court is second only to the Supreme Court in terms of prestige and power because it has jurisdiction over Congress and most federal regulations and agencies. The People for the American Way compiled a list of rulings showing that Kavanaugh consistently ruled against workers and for corporations during his 12½ years on the DC Circuit Court. Examples include Kavanaugh's opinions that would "entirely eviscerate collective bargaining;" his support for corporations seeking criminal citations for lawful union protests; and support for corporations that failed to protect workers health and safety.

Other Federal Courts. In almost 4 years Trump and the Republican Senate have appointed 24% of all active federal judges (194 of 792). There are 35 more nominations currently pending. Trump has appointed 30% of all active federal appeals court judges (54 of 179). This is more than any other president over the last 40 years. Overall, Republican appointees now account for 54% of all federal circuit court judges. The circuit courts are especially powerful because they function as final arbiter for the vast majority of cases since the Supreme Court accepts fewer than 2% of the 7-8,000 cases filed with it annually. These courts ultimately determine what the federal government can and cannot regulate – this is especially important to unions in relation to the right to organize and collectively bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions as well as the relative power of unions and corporations.


The Republican dominated executive, legislative and judicial branches have conspired to rig the laws, rules and regulations governing our political economy against unions and for corporations. The Brookings Institute maintains an up-to-date compilation of the Trump administration's deregulatory actions in a number of areas including labor, health, covid-19, education and environment. The Economic Policy Institute has itemized 50 anti-union actions taken by these branches of government against workers and provided an even more detailed analysis in another article. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Dismantling the Right to Join a Union and Collectively Bargain
    • Stripping the right to organize a union and collectively bargain from millions of workers at companies like Uber and Lyft (NLRB), graduate students (NLRB) and federal government workers including the determination that unionizing 750,000 Department of Defense workers would be a threat to national security.
    • Expanded management rights to undermine unions by granting management the power to determine which group of workers will be eligible to vote in an organizing election and be covered by a negotiated contract (NLRB).
    • Defunded unions by preventing public sector unions from requiring workers to help pay for the costs the union incurs for representing them in collective bargaining, arbitration and grievance procedures (Supreme Court)
    • Initiated the process to privatize government services that are heavily unionized including the US Postal Service (USPS) and public schools (Department of Education).
  • Reduced Good Paying Union Jobs. Trump's policies that were supposed to create jobs, actually eliminated jobs.
    • His 2017 tax cut provided incentives for corporations to offshore jobs by applying a 21% corporate tax rate for income earned domestically, but a 10.5% tax rate for profits earned offshore.
    • His China trade policy led to a 21% increase in our trade deficit with China and a resulting loss or displacement of 700,000 US jobs.
  • Reduced Wages. The Trump NLRB pushed through rules that prevented 8.2 million workers from obtaining overtime and cut $1 billion in wages by ruling that Lyft and Uber workers are individual contractors not subject to federal protections. The Republican Senate refused to consider a bill passed by the House to establish a $15 an hour minimum wage which would have increased wages for 33 million workers. The Trump administration stated that it would veto such a bill even if passed by the Senate.
  • Eroding Pension Security by Defunding Social Security. President Trump issued an executive order permitting companies to stop withholding payroll taxes. Trump also promised that "If I'm victorious on Nov 3, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax." The Social Security Administration stated that the Trump plan would deplete the Social Security retirement trust by 2023 at which time it would stop paying out benefits.
  • Denying and Reducing Health Insurance. Congressional Republicans and Trump have repeatedly attempted to pass legislation to eliminate Obamacare. The Trump administration also joined Republican state officials in suits contending that Obamacare is unconstitutional (a contention upheld by a Republican dominated appeals court). More than twenty million people will lose health insurance if these attempts are successful and 100 million would lose protections for previous conditions.
  • Eroded Workplace Safety and Health. Examples include OSHA's refusal to issue any required measures—via an emergency temporary infectious disease standard—to protect workers from the coronavirus; the Department of Labor's exclusion of millions of workers from paid leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA), including 9 million health care workers and 4.4 million first responders; and significant reductions in OSHA and Mine Safety inspections.


A vote for Trump, a 3rd party candidate or not voting at all is a vote to irredeemably harm unions. This is not to say that Biden and the Democratic Party are the second coming of FDR and the New Deal. However, Biden and the Democrats are not out to destroy unions and, at the very least, will blunt the corporate/Republican anti-union crusade. And, at best, Biden and the Democrats will enact pro-worker legislation to the degree that unions and progressive groups are mobilized and activated. While the Democrats represent the possibility of pro-worker legislation especially if pushed by mass mobilization, Trump and the Republicans are out to destroy unions no matter what we do.

Progressives must ensure that Trump is not reelected: A second Trump term would be like his first term but on steroids – unions may not recover. If Trump is reelected, he will take all the anti-union policies of his first term to a new level. He will do this especially because a second Trump term will be characterized by its vindictiveness. Trump has an established pattern of viciously attacking any of his supporters who he considered to have been disloyal. And it is even worse for any groups and individuals he perceives as enemies – and he definitely perceives unions as enemies because they have almost universally endorsed Biden. Thus, Trump and the Republicans will extend, expand and institutionalize their efforts to eviscerate workers' rights to organize and collectively bargain and erode wages, benefits and working conditions for millions of Americans. In addition, they will expand management rights and further increase the inequitable concentration of income, wealth and power in the hands of the corporate and billionaire elite. A second Trump term will irreversibly debilitate unions and their ability to countervail the power of corporations.

Trump will be able to implement his anti-union crusade even if the Democrats maintain control of the House and obtain a majority in the Senate. He has proven that Congress is basically toothless when confronted by a president who does not play by the established rules and norms of government. He has proven that he can effectively rule by executive order – and that the anti-union judiciary will sustain his policies. The big business/Republican party attack on unions will be even worse if the Republicans continue to control the Senate and, thus, the court system.

Mass mobilization and civil disobedience must defeat any attempt by Trump and the Republicans to steal the election. All progressive groups should be prepared to engage in mass civil disobedience in response to any attempt by Trump and Republicans to steal the election if Biden wins. There are many articles that examine such scenarios including Vox, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and many more. Possibilities include lawsuits that wind their way to the Supreme Court where a 6-3 Republican majority hands Trump a victory. Another scenario is for Republican controlled state governments to use their power to override voters in a narrow election. There could be significant attempts to invalidate mail-in votes. Yet another strategy is to delay results, create chaos in the electoral college and then throw the election to the House of Representatives where Republicans control more state delegations. We must be prepared for any of these possibilities. The stakes are too high. Unions – and the entire progressive movement - may not survive another Trump term. All progressive groups should call for mass civil disobedience. Unions – and progressive groups in general – should call for and implement a a range of mass action including a general strike, a range of rolling strikes or a mass slowdown. A number of local/regional labor councils have already passed resolutions supporting mass worker mobilizations. Such a strategy would entail a vast amount of educating, organizing and resources in a short period of time. It would also be risky – what if most workers failed to heed the call? Wouldn't that reveal a basic weakness in the labor movement and make its leaders unpopular with their membership? These are risks that pale in comparison to the gutting of unions that would occur with a second Trump term. Major crises call for significant and courageous actions.

Kenneth R. Peres retired as chief economist of the Communications Workers of America. Formerly, he served as economist for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Montana House Select Committee on Economic Development, and the Montana Alliance for Progressive Policy. Ken has held teaching positions at the University of Montana, St. John's University, Chief Dull Knife College, and the City University of New York. He obtained a PhD in economics from the New School in New York City.

Why the Republican Party wants to destroy labor unions

We are enmeshed in several "existential crises" that Trump and the Republicans have exacerbated – climate change; threat of nuclear war; US democracy; and the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there is at least one other "existential crisis" that is most often overlooked – the very existence of unions as an effective representative of working-class interests is at risk. Trump and the Republicans have launched a broad offensive involving all three branches of government to undermine the legal and civil foundation of organized labor: the right to be represented by a union and to collectively bargain for wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Four more years of Trump could result in the utter demise of the labor movement and the immiseration of a large portion of workers while furthering the concentration of income, wealth and power among a corporate and billionaire elite. This is not to say that Biden and the Democratic Party are the second coming of FDR and the New Deal. However, Biden and the Democrats are not out to destroy unions and, at the very least, will blunt the corporate/Republican anti-union crusade. And, at best, Biden and the Democrats will enact pro-worker legislation to the degree that unions and progressive groups are mobilized and activated. While the Democrats represent the possibility of pro-worker legislation especially if pushed by mass mobilization, Trump and the Republicans are out to destroy unions no matter what we do.

In a series of three articles, I will examine the anti-worker offensive launched by the Republican Party and President Trump as well as the alternative offered by the Democratic Party and Biden. This first article will analyze the reasons why the Republican party has declared a war against unions. The second article will examine the two-pronged offensive launched by President Trump and the Republican Party against unions; namely, stacking the deck by appointing proven anti-union ideologues to key positions and rigging the rules by enacting anti-union/pro-corporate policies. The final article will describe Biden's stated policy positions in relation to labor and propose a number of recommendations for union supporters to mobilize not only to defeat the anti-union Trump led Republican Party but also to ensure that a Biden administration follows through on his pro-worker promises.

While these articles focus on the attack on workers' rights and the promotion of corporate power, they are in no way meant to take away from the importance of the other crises and issues we face – the struggle for workers' rights is inextricably linked to the struggle for civil, human and economic rights; a clean and healthy environment; an equitable distribution of income, wealth and power; and the creation of an effective and functioning democracy.

The GOP Wants to Destroy Unions

The Republican Party has historically been a bitter opponent of labor unions. Since the New Deal, Republicans have consistently supported efforts to weaken unions by eliminating or eroding statutory protections for the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Most famously, Republicans initiated and overwhelmingly supported the Taft Hartley Act which weakened unions by prohibiting many of the tactics that made unions formidable during the 1930s and 1940s. President Reagan launched another attack against unions when he broke the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) during his first term and legitimized the use of non-union "permanent replacements" for striking union workers. As will be examined in the next article, President Trump and the current Republican Party have taken this anti-union crusade to new heights.

Big Business funds – and therefore controls - the Republican party. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, big business invested $20.1 billion in federal campaign contributions from 1990 through the first half of 2020. Republicans received 57% while Democrats received 43%. Business trade associations including the powerful US Chamber of Commerce gave 84% of their campaign contributions to Republicans and just 16% to Democrats. A 2019 report examining the donations of the CEOs of the top 1,500 publicly traded companies from 2000-2017 found a strong bias in favor of Republicans: 57.7% donated to Republicans, 18.6% to Democrats, with the rest leaning toward neither party. Even though big business does give billions of dollars to Democrats and thus has a lot of power within the Democratic Party, big business gives many billions more dollars to the Republican Party which it dominates. Meanwhile, unions invested just $1.6 billion in total campaign contributions from 1990 to 2020 – 91% of which went to Democrats.

Big Business Wants to Destroy Unions – therefore, the Republican Party Acts to Destroy Unions. Big business does not overwhelmingly fund the Republican party for altruistic reasons – there is a quid pro quo. And part of the deal is that the Republican party must follow the lead of big business in opposing unions

  • Unions form the largest civil institution that serves the interests of working people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions represented 16.4 million workers or 11.6% of the employed workforce in 2019. While this percentage is far lower than 1983 when unions represented 23.3% of the workforce, it is still a very large block of voting age Americans with shared interests and organizational connections. Union households represent an even larger share of the national electorate: according to CNN exit polls, union households represented 18% of the national electorate in 2016 – and much larger shares of voters in key swing states such as 28% of Michigan voters in 2016
  • Unions advocate policies opposed by Big Business and oppose policies advocated by Big Business. Unions have initiated and/or provided critical support – while Big Business and Republicans generally opposed - the eight-hour day, the five-day workweek, overtime, minimum wages, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, occupational safety and health regulations, paid family leave, the expansion of governmental programs aiding lower income workers and much more. Unions also have strongly opposed many of the policies advocated by big business including tax cuts that disproportionately favor corporations and the wealthy; the elimination or erosion of worker, environmental and consumer protections; the elimination of limits on the amount of legal campaign contributions by corporations and wealthy individuals; the privatization of crucial government services and agencies such as social security, the post office, public education; and much more
  • Unions force corporations to share some of their gains and power with workers. Union-represented workers on average have higher wages and better benefits than non-union workers. According to the BLS, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $1,095 in 2019, while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $892. Thus, union workers make almost $10,600 more a year than non-union workers. Moreover, according to another BLS report, union represented workers have substantially greater access to health, pension, paid time off, and other benefits. Corporations do not appreciate the higher wages and benefits obtained by union represented workers because they cut into profits, even though union workers are more productive than non-union workers. But corporations really do not like unions because they reduce management power over the workplace. For example, union represented workers obtain the contractual obligation of due process and just cause for discipline and firing. Union workers have representation throughout a contractual process to determine whether an employer has just cause for discipline or firing. Non-represented workers are "at will" and do not have such protections: they can be fired for basically any reason except those few instances protected by law such as race, gender, disability and religion
  • Unions reduce income inequality. A recent study by three Princeton University economists found that unions reduced income inequality in the United States, not just for union members but for the entire distribution of workers and wages. An earlier study by sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld had a similar finding, that "unions not only equalize union members' wages, they also equalize the nonunion wage distribution by threatening union organization and buttressing norms for fair pay. We found strong evidence that unionization rates in detailed industries for geographic regions are positively associated with wage equality among nonunion workers."

The Republican Party also opposes unions in order to weaken the Democratic Party. Obviously, the Republican Party competes with the Democrats for votes and thus positions of political power. Consequently, Republicans will do all they can to weaken the Democrats which makes unions a prime target

  • Unions are a core constituency of the Democratic Party. As previously mentioned, unions directed 91% of their campaign contributions to Democrats from 1990 through the first half of 2020. In presidential elections, 60-66% of union households have historically supported Democratic presidential candidates – except for 2016 when just 53% voted for Clinton while 42% voted for Trump (as compared to non-union households which voted 46% for Clinton and 48% for Trump). Unions also supply thousands of volunteers to canvass neighborhoods and get out the vote. These on-the-ground efforts are probably more important than labor's direct cash contributions
  • Unions are a more powerful force for progressive policies than the Democratic Party. A Nation article details research that shows the critical impact of unions on policy and the Democratic Party.
    • Political scientists Benjamin Radcliff and Martin Saiz found that the strength of unions in particular states is a more powerful determinant of liberal policy than the power of the Democratic Party in those states.
    • Political scientists Thomas Volscho and Nathan Kelly found that unions exert a more powerful influence on the share of income going to the 1 percent than does the share of Congress that is controlled by Democrats
    Other research also suggests that unions increase voter turnout, and that this effect is strongest for workers of color. More recent work on the impact of Citizens United finds that its effect on policy liberalism was muted in states with more powerful unions
  • By weakening unions through "Right to Work" laws, the Republican Party weakens the Democratic Party. The Republican Party has championed Right to Work laws as a means to weaken labor unions. Unions are required by law to collectively bargain for and represent all workers in their bargaining units whether they are members or not. However, right to work laws prohibit unions from collecting payments from all these workers to help pay for the cost of bargaining and contract administration. In other words, workers represented by unions can refuse to help pay for the costs the union incurs to represent them. Union supporters call such workers "free riders." The clear intent of such laws is to reduce union revenue, the number of members and, thus, to weaken unions. And that is exactly what happened. For example, from 2012 (the year before Right to Work was adopted in Michigan) to 2019, the 14 major public and private sector unions lost 130,000 members (16% of their membership) and $20 million in revenue. Wisconsin adopted a bill that significantly curtailed the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers in 2011 and adopted a right to work law in 2015. The combined impact of these laws has been significant: from 2010 to 2019, Wisconsin union membership declined by 137,000 or 39%.

But the impact was not just felt by unions. A major study examined the impact of Right to Work laws not only on unions but also on the Democratic party:

  • Right-to-work laws reduce Democratic presidential vote shares by 3.5 percentage points.
  • There are similar effects in US Senate, US House, and Gubernatorial races, as well as on state legislative control
  • Turnout of union members is 2 to 3 percentage points lower in right-to-work counties after those laws pass
  • The share of blue-collar workers reporting a get-out-the-vote contact declines by 11 percent following the passage of right-to-work laws
  • Total campaign contributions from all unions falls by 2.5 to 3 points

The 3.5% reduction of union presidential votes probably cost Hillary Clinton the presidency: she lost Michigan by just 10,704 votes, a margin of just 0.23% and lost Wisconsin by just 22,748 votes or a margin of just 0.7%.

Republican party voters are primarily located in states with an anti-union history. The strength of the Republican party is centered in states that have adopted anti-union policies such as the "right to work" laws described above. It is no surprise that the Republican Party launched, and corporate donors funded a major effort to extend right to work laws to "fair share" states. Since 2010, six additional states controlled by Republicans passed Right to Work laws for a total of 27 states altogether. These 27 states accounted for 83% of the current crop of Republican senators; 82% of Trump's total 2016 electoral college votes; and almost 70% of the total number of Republican representatives.

The Democratic Party Is Much Better on Labor Issues Than the Republican Party

The Democratic Party is not a labor party. Unions form an important constituency of the Democratic Party in terms of funding, voting and providing the volunteers needed for canvassing, phone banking and getting out the vote. Ironically, the Republican Party recognizes the importance of unions to the Democratic Party more than the Democratic Party. And, Big Business provides billions of dollars in support to corporate Democrats – a significant source of Democratic funding though much less than the contributions to Republicans. The importance of corporate money and influence has pushed many Democrats toward policies that aid corporations and hurt workers. Two examples illustrate the power of corporations in the Democratic Party. First, Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama failed to prioritize labor law reforms that would have assisted unions in their fight with corporations and would have strengthened the Democratic Party. These bills failed because they were not prioritized by the Presidents and the Senate filibuster rule that gave outsized importance to Senators from anti-union, especially southern states. Second, President Clinton pushed through NAFTA and the China trade deals that led to the combined loss of 4 million jobs – many of which were good union jobs. Clinton was able to push these policies through Congress with the support of most Republicans and despite the opposition of most Democrats. President Obama attempted to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, called NAFTA on steroids. However, he was thwarted by opposition from labor, environmental, consumer, civil rights and religious groups – and most Democratic members of Congress.

However, despite all of that, a higher percentage of congressional Democrats are now more pro-union than ever. This is the result of the extinction of anti-union/pro-segregation Southern Democrats who have now become Republicans and the expansion of voting rights to Black and Latinx citizens who are more pro-union. Conversely, Democrats strengthened their hold in pro-union states as pro-union Republicans disappeared. Consequently, Democratic support for labor law reform has steadily increased among Congressional Democrats over time. For example, Obama – despite the issues noted above – appointed very pro-union individuals to the NLRB who issued many pro-union rules. Not one congressional Democrat supported the Republican led drive to roll back many of the new NLRB rules in 2015 when the Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. This pro-union solidarity among Democrats prevented a Republican override of Obama's veto of the legislation. And when Republicans did roll back a number of Obama era pro-labor rules when they controlled both houses of Congress, not one Democrat supported the effort. This entire trajectory was described in an interesting article by Nathan Newman who concluded, "There is [Democratic] unity in defense of labor interests in the modern Democratic Party that was nowhere to be seen during the New Deal era."

Democrats, despite Republican opposition, were responsible for passage of civil rights, age discrimination, disability rights, pregnancy discrimination, occupational safety and health, and the Family and Medical Leave acts. State laws in Democratic states are much more labor-friendly than those in Republican controlled states.

The point here is not that the Democratic Party is a labor party – it is not. And it is clear that our entire political system is dominated by corporate money. However, it is also clear that Democrats are much more pro-worker than the Republican Party. Indeed, as the next article will show – the Republican Party has launched an offensive to debilitate unions – an offensive led by President Trump, Republican majorities in the Senate and the federal judiciary and officials in Republican controlled states.

The Bottom Line

The Republican Party sees unions and their supporters as enemies to be politically and economically destroyed. The Democratic Party will not destroy unions and actually provides the possibility to assist unions in representing the interests of working people. Note to union supporters: act and vote accordingly.

Kenneth R. Peres retired as chief economist of the Communications Workers of America. Formerly, he served as economist for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Montana House Select Committee on Economic Development, and the Montana Alliance for Progressive Policy. Ken has held teaching positions at the University of Montana, St. John's University, Chief Dull Knife College, and the City University of New York. He obtained a PhD in economics from the New School in New York City.

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