Before it was the end-of-summer holiday with cookouts and sales. Before former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tweeted that it “celebrate(s) those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” Or before press releases used it as a hook for, say, a study on the number of Washington workers in high-risk jobs because of the pandemic (900,000). …

Before all of this, Labor Day was about unions.

If I were writing this column in the first six decades of the 20th century, my focus would be on organized labor and the upcoming presidential election. For whom would John L. Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Jimmy Hoffa and George Meany urge their millions of members to vote?

Support from unions was important for candidates. It was an essential part of the coalition that ensured the four election victories of President Franklin Roosevelt.

But it wasn’t a one-sided affair with Democrats. At the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt backed labor, provided it renounced violence. In the 1920s and into the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover was on cordial terms with organized labor. AFL-CIO head Meany said of GOP President Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in the 1950s: “American labor has never had it so good. Everything is booming but the guns.”

That was when membership peaked: 35% of American wage and salary workers were unionized in 1954, the large majority in the private sector. By 2019, only 6.2% of private-sector employees were in unions.

Total membership was about 10% of the wage-and-salary workforce this past year, with strength almost entirely in public-sector unions. And if organized labor has seen a headline role in this presidential election, it has been from criticism of police unions.


To be sure, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has spoken about “democracy at stake” in November’s outcome. And labor still has a war chest. In 2016, it spent $132 million on super PACs backing Democratic candidates.

For context, however, this paled to the political spending of just five billionaires. The 2010 Citizens United decision opened politics to unlimited spending by business and (much diminished) labor.

What led to the great decline in unions? Here are some major causes:

Their huge industries contracted severely. For example, Lewis’ United Mine Workers of America boasted 500,000 members in 1946. But mechanization and falling demand for coal severely cut employment. Only 49,000 coal miners, union or not, remained as of March before the pandemic crashed the economy. (Bargaining for workers in a variety of industries now, the United Mine Workers has about 80,000 members).

Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, primarily African Americans, merged with another union in 1978 when America’s intercity passenger trains went from being world leaders to being on life support on Amtrak. Reuther’s United Auto Workers were battered by the decline of the Big Three and entry of non-union Japanese auto factories in America.

Government tilted the balance against them. The New Deal was a boon to union power. But in 1947, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act. It limited the ability of unions to strike and allowed states to pass so-called right-to-work laws. These prevented “closed shops,” where all employees were required to be members of the bargaining unit.


In 1981, President Ronald Reagan broke a strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Paradoxically, Reagan was the only president who had led an AFL-CIO union (the Screen Actors Guild). Private business took this as a sign that the federal government would look favorably on them using replacement workers to replace strikers — and it did.

Successive National Labor Relations Board members have tilted against worker rights and unions. Even President Barack Obama promised to back “card check,” an easier form of organizing, as a candidate. But card check went nowhere during his presidency.

Overreach and corruption. Even many Democrats voted for Taft-Hartley after a crippling series of post-World War II strikes. Union power became unpopular when the blunt instrument of the strike was used too often.

Meanwhile, some locals and Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters were connected to organized crime and other corruption, often at the expense of their members. Earlier this year, a former president of the United Auto Workers was charged with embezzlement. That’s petty theft compared with the banksters of 2008 or the Enron scandal, but it tarnished labor.

Their own success. Largely thanks to unions, American wages rose and employer-sponsored health care became common, as did pensions — with non-union companies following suit to prevent organizing in their firms.

This lifted generations into the middle class until many people forgot the origin of their prosperity. As a result, many tilted Republican on economic and social issues. An example was the “Reagan Democrats” — blue-collar conservatives, many from union backgrounds, who lost their loyalty to organized labor.


This decoupling was accelerated by the Sun Belt migration, as workers from the industrial, and unionized, Midwest moved to the South and Southwest’s right-to-work states.

Economic shifts. Globalization, offshoring of jobs and the rise of short-term profit demands on the part of many companies all worked against unions. Such innovations as containerized shipping and advanced railroad technology killed huge numbers of union jobs.

At organized labor’s high tide, major industries included steel, mining, domestic automaking and railroads. All had millions of union members.

Today, such giants as Walmart and Amazon are adamantly anti-union. And higher-skilled technology jobs are very hard to organize. Coders don’t feel the same solidarity with co-workers as did Pullman porters or employees of the old Bell System.

As we mark Labor Day 2020, organized labor has enjoyed successes in the public sector, and some limited gains in the service sector. But unions are no longer the essential counterweight to big business that once made America so successful and lowered inequality.

Many Americans realize this. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found 55% of respondents support unions versus 33% with an unfavorable view. Mindful of the loss of workers’ rights and equality in the digital gilded age, many want that counterweight.

Re-righting the balance won’t be easy, but labor’s not dead yet. The Service Employees International Union alone has committed $150 million to defeat President Donald Trump.

Yet Trump won many union members, especially white men, in 2016.

We’ll see if four years of Trump and more demographically diverse union membership changes that outcome.