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Juan Williams: Labor's surprising winning streak

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

On this Labor Day 2021, let’s apply Mark Twain’s famous quip to America’s labor unions.

News about organized labor is always headlined by sad accounts about declining union membership.

It is now so low that only 6.3 percent of workers in the private sector — and only 10.8 percent of all U.S. workers — belong to a union. In the 1950s, 33 percent of workers were signed up as union members.

And there are more bad headlines for unions coming out of the nation’s sharp political divide.

Fifty-five percent of Republicans told Pew earlier this year that the long-term decline of unions is “very good or somewhat good” for American workers.

On the other side, three-in-four Democrats said the decline in unions is “very bad or somewhat bad” for working people.

The left-right split is eating away at labor’s political muscle.

Union members, especially industrial workers, mostly white men, used to be solid Democrats. But in the 2020 election, 40 percent of voters who were themselves union members or had a union member in their household voted for Republican Donald Trump, reducing President Biden’s share of the union vote to 56 percent.

But on this Labor Day 2021, look at labor’s surprising winning streak.

First, Biden’s American Rescue Plan, signed in March, put $350 billion into state, county and local governments, a big boost for public sector workers who are the heart of modern American unions.

“I’m a union guy,” President Biden said when the bill passed. “I support unions. Unions built the middle class. It’s about time they start to get a piece of the action.”

Second, unions are big winners in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill. It passed with bipartisan support in the Senate last month. The money to rebuild roads, bridges, modernize airports and the power grid creates union jobs.

The House also passed priority legislation for big labor in March — the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, known as the PRO Act.

The proposal would rewrite the National Labor Relations Act to overrule right-to-work laws in more than half of the states that make union dues optional and allow workers to opt out of joining.

The PRO Act has been a dream for organized labor since the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling that mandatory union dues in any state are unconstitutional.

So far, Senate Republicans oppose the act. But if labor somehow gets enough GOP support to reach 60 votes — and so overcome a filibuster — the result will be a spike in union members, with an infusion of revenue from new union dues.

Third, labor got a win under Trump, with passage of a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement — now known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). American labor unions celebrated the new pact for potentially boosting the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

That’s not all. There is more good news in growing support for unions among American women.

Women are on track to soon make up half of the nation’s union members, according to Liz Shuler, the new president of the AFL-CIO. That’s a big jump. As recently as 1983, women made up only a third of union members.

Shuler is part of that change. She became the first woman to lead the nation’s biggest organization of labor groups last month.

“It is incredibly important to signal that the labor movement is a movement for women,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. She added the AFL-CIO is “the largest organization of working women in the country. Not many people see us that way.”

And there’s still more reason for optimism in the variety of growth sprouting inside unions — they are becoming more racially diverse.

Since the 1980s, minorities have increased their presence from 22 percent to 37 percent of union members.

Now, the AFL-CIO’s number two leader, its secretary-treasurer, is a Black man, Fred Redmond. Its executive vice president is also black, Tefere Gebre.

This more racially mixed labor movement is benefitting from ties to the energy of racial justice protests.

Before his death last month, former AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka took heat from old-line, white conservative union leaders for supporting marches against police brutality.

As early as 2014 Trumka spoke in St. Louis, Mo., after a policeman fatally shot a black teen, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson.

The most important good news for labor is arguably the continued relevance of its political presence.

Union households, specifically white working-class voters in crucial states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, helped Biden win in areas where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton fell short four years earlier.

The political clout of the teachers' union will be on full display in next week’s high-stakes California gubernatorial recall election.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is leaning heavily on support from the state’s teachers’ unions to turn out voters. Democratic turnout is expected to be low in the off-year special election and Newsom needs the unions to stand up against far-right activists who are expected to turn out.

While the unions may no longer have the numbers or the clout they once enjoyed, they still have tremendous political leverage at critical moments like the California recall.

Yes, reports of labor demise have been exaggerated.

That’s the good news for unions on this Labor Day.

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