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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Stronger Unions Boost Dem Prospects

by Pete Ross
Despite internal struggles within the American labor movement and the decades-long decline in union membership, there are signs that unions may be poised for a new era of growth. Even in red states unions are making headway. For example, Anders Schneiderman, online campaign manager for the Service Employees International Union reports that 5,000 Houston janitors in the private sector “who clean more than 60 percent of Houston’s office space,” have signed up with the union in less than a year — “one of the largest successful organizing efforts by private sector workers in Texas history.” In addition, prospects for adding 20,000 more Texas workers to S.E.I.U. rolls in the coming months are bright
However, unions in general face a daunting challenge in projecting a better image nation-wide. A Harris Poll conducted 8/9-16, for example indicates that a hefty majority of U.S. adults entertain a negative overall view of “the job being done by labor unions.” But when asked to focus on the question of whether unions deliver better wages and working conditions for their members, 75 percent of adults agree, a slight uptick over the 72 percent who agreed in a 1993 Harris poll. 50 percent of respondents also agreed that unions work for legislation that benefits all workers, compared with 42 percent in 1993 and 51 percent said unions give members their money’s worth, compared to 42 percent in 1993. And 61 percent of union households believed union dues are a good investment, a double digit increase over the 50 percent who thought so in 1993.
These figures are encouraging, although they should be better. There’s more unions can do to project a better overall image, such as launching national cable TV and radio networks. Or how about a Ken Burns-style major documentary on organized labor’s contributions to improving worklife and living standards in America, or a public service ad campaign featuring celebrities with street cred, or free workshops to train biz page reporters to do a better job of covering labor issues?
A more vigorous union movement is good news for Dems. Organized workers are more likely to vote for, contribute money and volunteer to help Dem candidates. If other unions can match S.E.I.U.’s fighting spirit in the years ahead, it could transform the political landscape.