The Dilemma at the Core of America’s Labor Movement

The past year was seen as a big moment for American workers. High-profile strikes by the United Auto Workers and Hollywood unions grabbed headlines and led to important wins. Support for unions reached levels not seen since the 1960s, with most Americans backing unions and being open to unionizing their own workplaces. President Joe Biden has shown strong support for organized labor more than any recent president. All of this points to a potentially stronger labor movement in the United States than in years past.

However, despite the positive signs, only a small percentage of American workers are actually part of unions. The private sector has even lower union membership rates. Companies like Amazon, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s still have workers without contracts or meaningful negotiations for one. While being in a union is linked to better pay, benefits, and workplace conditions, many American workers have not had the opportunity to benefit from union advantages. In fact, an estimate suggests that around 60 million workers in the U.S. want a union but are unable to have one.

The story of organized labor in the U.S. can be split into two narratives. Older unions from the 1930s have thrived, benefiting from strong foundations laid at the time when labor protections were solid. Yet, new unionizing efforts face significant hurdles. Legal changes over the years were not focused on dismantling existing unions but rather on hindering the formation of new ones. This has worked effectively, maintaining the number of union members but at a low percentage of the overall workforce. Public support and even presidential backing may not be enough to reverse this trend and strengthen the labor movement effectively.

Nearly a century ago, even fewer workers were part of unions, leading to high income inequality and oppressive workplace conditions. The Great Depression prompted significant change with the passing of the Wagner Act in 1935, granting workers the rights to unionize and take collective action. However, this shift was later countered by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which weakened key labor protections and hindered union growth. The subsequent decades saw further dilution of labor rights, culminating in the present-day challenges faced by workers in forming and maintaining unions.

Reversing the decline of union power requires overcoming legal obstacles that restrict workers’ ability to unionize effectively. The current process of union recognition through NLRB elections is riddled with loopholes that allow companies to thwart union efforts. Even if unions manage to gain majority support, companies can delay negotiations and maintain an upper hand in the bargaining process. While the cultural perception of labor unions has improved, the structural barriers to effective unionization remain a significant challenge for workers.

To revive organized labor in the U.S., significant legal reforms are needed to rebalance the power dynamic between workers and corporations. The Protecting the Rights to Organize Act, introduced in 2019, aims to undo key provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act and restore workers’ rights. However, cultural shifts and a deeper understanding of the benefits of unionization among the American public are crucial to driving meaningful change in labor laws. The road to a stronger labor movement is paved with both legal reforms and a renewed societal appreciation for the collective power of workers.