First, most Americans hold favorable views of unions. According to a June 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans hold favorable views of labor unions, a 10 percent increase from the number in the same poll conducted two years earlier. This is first time since January 2007 that a majority of the public has viewed unions favorably. 80 percent of “liberal Democrats” hold favorable views on unions. Women, minorities and youth – key groups for organized labor — hold the most pro-union attitudes. There is no straightforward relationship between public approval for unions and union growth, but the labor movement must figure out how to bring into its fold the majority of Americans who like unions.
Second, bucking national trends, union membership in California increased by a whopping 110,000 members in 2012, even as it fell by 368,000 nationwide. Much of the increase in California, which has the nation’s largest number of union members, was among healthcare workers and Latino workers. In several other states with growing Latino populations, membership grew more modestly, but these states may soon follow California’s lead.
Third, some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers have been standing up for decent wages and working conditions. Wal-Mart workers and warehouse workers under contract with Wal-Mart have gone out on strike around the country. Port truckers in L.A. and Long Beach voted to unionize, as did carwash workers in L.A. and New York, and taxi drivers in New York. Following the examples of New York, Hawaii enacted a domestic worker “Bill of Rights” and California may soon do the same. Fast food workers — most of who are adults working for little more than $10 per hour — have walked off the job in New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Seattle. They won’t be able to bargain with their employers anytime soon, but few would have predicted their brave job actions last year.
Fourth, after years of Republican obstructionism, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has a full compliment of five members for the first time under the Obama administration. The NLRB election system provides weak protection for workers’ right to organize, and its influence has been severely constrained by the courts, but it remains an important bulwark against recalcitrant employers who violate workers’ fundamental rights.
Finally, as demonstrated by next week’s “open convention,” the AFL-CIO and its affiliates are more flexible, imaginative, and inclusive than ever before. They have embraced the struggles of domestic workers, carwash workers, Wal-Mart workers, fast food workers and others. They have formed deep alliances with the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Sierra Club, religious organizations, and other groups that support basic justice for American workers. And they have played a key role in lobbying for federal legislation that benefits all workers – healthcare reform, equal pay legislation, immigration reform, an increase in the minimum wage and paid sick leave.
Other than maybe active growth in California, I’m not sure any of this means all that much in terms of growing union power. A functional NLRB is a good thing, making meaningful, alliances is very important (although what that means in terms of concrete results I’m not sure), and I’m certainly glad fast food workers are standing up for themselves. But sweet icing can’t cover up a cake poisoned by nearly a half century of capital mobility, ideological attacks on unions, and corporate regulatory capture.