Los Angeles school teacher Glenn Laird has been a union stalwart for almost four decades. He served as a co-chair of his school's delegation to United Teachers Los Angeles and proudly wore union purple on the picket line.
But Laird is now suing to leave UTLA and demanding a refund of the dues the union has collected since his resignation request. His turning point came in July 2020 when the union, the second largest teachers union in the country, joined liberal activists to demand that Los Angeles defund the police in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“We have to dismantle white supremacy,” incoming UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said.
Laird, who is white, was floored. The union seemed to have forgotten why schools hired on more safety officers back in the 1980s and 1990s when Los Angeles was one of America's most violent cities. While safety is Laird’s specific concern, he is also concerned about his union’s increasing embrace of so-called social justice issues.
"I would much prefer a union focused completely on wages, hours, working conditions," he said. "When the union goes into political activist mode, I think it dilutes the practice of what a union is supposed to be doing."
Laird is not alone. He is among union rank-and-file nationwide chafing at their leadership’s embrace of woke politics as a means of reversing declining membership and maintaining influence in the Democratic Party — dissent shown in many defections to Donald Trump in the last two elections as well as high-profile recent organizing defeats and court setbacks.
Significant as the pushback is, it does not seem to faze Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, of which the Los Angeles teachers’ group is an affiliate.
A week before the teachers union president called for defunding the police, Trumka issued a statement declaring, “The AFL-CIO Must Fight for Trans Lives Inside and Outside the Labor Movement.” As he tried to connect the West Virginia coal mines where he cut his teeth to the 1969 Stonewall riots, a catalyst for gay activism, Trumka asserted that “the labor movement is focused on electing candidates up and down the ballot who understand the intersectionality of worker and LGBTQ rights.”
Trumka’s departure from traditional union rhetoric reflects both labor’s relative weakness and the recognition that its future will depend less on conservative “lunch pail workers” than on progressive professionals in tech and elsewhere for whom values and social justice are key concerns.
Labor historian Leon Fink, author of the forthcoming book “Undoing the Liberal World Order,” said American unions have been on the defensive for the past four decades as their membership fell from 17% of the private sector workforce to 6% in 2020.
“There are some tensions between the generally liberal leadership and certainly strong pockets of rank-and-file conservatism on social issues,” Fink said. “The one place that leadership does exercise some autonomy is in the political sphere.”
Oren Cass, president of American Compass, a pro-union conservative group, also links the rise of political activism to plummeting membership. Cass argues the decline of union preeminence in the workforce has led the movement to turn to politics for salvation, in the process becoming “a functioning arm of the Democratic Party.”
“Traditionally, labor’s primary pathway to power was the labor market,” Cass says. “As unions have less and less to do with the economy, they’ve had more and more to do with politics.”
And so they hope to reap rewards for helping deliver Joe Biden to the White House. He has pledged to become “the most pro-union president in history” and he will make good on the promise if he is able to usher in the PRO Act (for Protecting the Right to Organize), which would effectively overturn right-to-work laws in 27 states that allow workers to opt out of union membership.
The PRO Act would force nearly 3 million dissenters into union ranks. The influx of these workers automatically enrolled spares unions the cost of persuading workers to join. Unions collected $11.1 billion in dues and fees in 2020, but those revenues could nearly double to $20 billion if the PRO Act – which is facing strong opposition from Republicans – is passed, according to the Institute for the American Worker. Labor leaders would not be the only beneficiaries. Political spending from labor unions could increase to as much as $3 billion per election cycle, according to the IAW.
But within union ranks, the divisive nature of this strategy was amply illustrated in 2016, when the traditional union man was a driving force behind Donald Trump’s surprise victory, and in 2020, when Trump once again outperformed among self-identified union members, according to exit polls of those who voted on Election Day. Though 28% of union membership is Republican, according to the estimate of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale, Trump won a majority of union voters in Ohio and 50% in the Keystone State.
“Certainly it is a concern that a lot of our members bought into the con,” Bloomingdale says, referring in part to Trump’s opposition to the PRO Act. “It’s always disconcerting when folks go against their own best interests. Why would you vote for somebody who wants to destroy the right to organize?”
While passage of the PRO Act may provide a boon to sagging union membership numbers, Cass says the success may be short-lived if labor remains seen through a strictly partisan lens.
“If labor’s view is that the number one priority is to have Democrats in office because they get better policies, then everything will be subservient to that,” Cass says. “Increasingly, organizing is not what unions do — a lot of what is done under the heading of labor is just color-by-numbers left-wing activism.”
Unions have always been political entities in the United States — the CIO gave birth to the first political action committee in 1943 — but they have never been more heavily invested in the political sphere. Union spending on politics has nearly doubled in the past 15 years. An IAW study found that unions spent $791 million on political activities and lobbying in 2020 — up from $427 million in 2006. About 90% of those donations went to Democrats. Annual expenditures on representational activities — organizing workplaces, arguing grievances, or negotiating wages and benefits — increased by only 20% over that same time period.
Union political priorities are no longer limited to winning higher wages and benefits for workers, but advancing liberal ideology for its own sake. The labor watchdog Center for Union Facts found that union members shelled out about $1 billion to finance liberal nonprofits and media organizations in the past 10 years. The Center for American Progress has received $10.5 million from labor groups; Planned Parenthood, $4.2 million; the Human Rights Campaign, more than $800,000; Media Matters, $1.5 million. On the surface, these groups may not appear natural allies of labor unions — each has either privately resisted unionization or faced federal labor complaints — but they are still close partners.
Unions are not just alienating members like Laird when they step into the breach of politics. The recent attempt to organize an Alabama Amazon warehouse made blatant racial appeals to its largely African American workforce. Union leaders, and much of the mainstream press coverage, cast the effort as a near slam dunk for the union. A black worker bristled at the campaign pitch, which “tried to cast the union drive as an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement because most of the workers are black,” according to the New York Times.
After workers voted overwhelmingly against the union, news coverage revealed that workers were more interested in bread-and-butter issues than identity politics. “This was not an African American issue,” the worker told the Times. “Amazon is the only job I know where they pay your health insurance from day one.”
The focus on woke talking points may have not been enough to win the support of Amazon workers — though the union has challenged the election results — but organizers are hoping it will strike a chord with a new kind of union member. Bloomingdale is quick to point out that “while the building trades do great work, they are not the biggest part of the labor movement.” Labor officials are organizing “new industries, like your industry — Internet sites … the health care industry” and college campuses. In 1994, 25.3% of union members had bachelor's or advanced degrees, while 46.6% had topped out at high school (if they had graduated at all). By 2019, 42% had bachelor's degrees or higher.
The union man of the popular imagination is a dying breed as America has outsourced industrial jobs and right-to-work laws have allowed workers to opt out. Half of America’s union members hold government jobs, with teachers and police being the most heavily unionized professions in the country. That shift is unlikely to change even with the PRO Act. Unlike a steel mill or auto plant, state and local government jobs cannot be outsourced. Trumka may have started out in the coal mines before entering the air-conditioned offices of the AFL-CIO, but many labor leaders now enter straight from graduate school.
“The unions see that their own welfare is tied to a larger coalition of a kind of multi-racial alliance that is generally pro-labor, anti-racist, and respecting the rights of sexual expression,” Fink says.
One can see this play out in union organizing strategies. Forming a new union is an expensive endeavor with costs that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unions have suffered high-profile defeats at Amazon, Nissan, and Volkswagen in recent years, voted down by the blue-collar workers that defined the labor movement throughout the 20 century. But they have found success among liberal professions by marshalling the ideological commitment of their workers. Unions have added tens of thousands of members on college campuses and newsrooms across the country.
“The areas of greater unionized employment have tended to be more white-collar in recent years,” Fink says. “Many of them come from working-class backgrounds, but most do have college educations and have been exposed to more liberal influences outside of economic issues.”
Bloomingdale, who represents about 900,000 members spread across hundreds of Pennsylvania unions, is supportive of the injection of intersectionality into the labor movement.
“Anything that affects your ability to do your job is a labor issue. … We used to try to divorce those things from hours, work conditions and wages,” he says. “The labor movement didn’t always look through the lens of systemic racism, but that all affects your ability to work and live a decent life.”
The search for new members in new industries and the embrace of intersectionality has brought its own complications in traditional union strongholds.
Scabby the Rat has been a staple at union protests since making his debut at Chicago construction sites in 1990. He is about as subtle as you'd expect a multi-story rodent balloon to be: red eyes, sharp fangs, a swollen, disease-ridden belly. What little nuance there is to Scabby was lost on students at the University of Michigan. When labor activists used the image at a strike outside of a dean's house, they received complaints that any depiction of rodents is anti-Semitic. The complaints did not stop there. Students and faculty also pointed out that the dean in question is a woman.
"We also know, and deeply regret, that for many this action raised the spectre of violence against women, and want to reaffirm that as a union committed to feminist and antiracist values, that is a history we would never knowingly reinforce," the union said in an apology letter circulated to faculty members.
Big Labor's foray into social justice may appeal to a growing elite white-collar base, but it creates other problems. Diverting union funds to outside political causes has been a key driver of federal lawsuits that ultimately hamper their efforts. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled government agencies could no longer mandate union membership or fee payments as a condition of employment. The closed union shop has been a mainstay of American labor law for decades and enjoyed the blessing of the Supreme Court beginning in 1977's Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The seeds for the court's verdict came when individual union members took issue with their leaders' explicit partisan nature.
Rebecca Friedrichs was a union cheerleader when she began her career as a California elementary school teacher. Like Laird, she served as a school representative hoping to advance the interests of teachers against administrators. She soured on the organization when she saw dues money siphoned into explicitly political ends rather than the broad interests of teachers. She was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit arguing that mandatory union fees amounted to compelled speech. The high court deadlocked on her case following the death of Antonin Scalia, but it laid the groundwork for the Janus decision two years later barring mandatory union fees for nonunion workers.
“There has been this concerted effort to hijack the labor movement,” Friedrichs says. “They are using government employees to fund a far-left agenda.”
The end of forced dues payments led to optimism that unions would moderate in the political realm and recommit to the paycheck interests of its members. That has not occurred. The National Education Association, the teachers union Friedrichs belonged to, sent $14 million to the State Engagement Fund in 2018. The group funneled millions of dollars into partisan political groups that same year, serving as a clearing house for major liberal donors. Despite the fund’s explicit partisan spending, the NEA classified its payments as "a national partnership/grant" in federal labor filings, rather than a political expenditure. The distinction is meaningful: Labor law has allowed workers to pay partial fees in attempting to avoid compelled political donations. By classifying these payments as charitable, NEA was able to redirect payments from both members and dissidents to the group. The NEA did not respond to request for comment.
Glenn Laird, the Los Angeles teacher, is hopeful the labor movement can return to its narrow mission of fighting for teachers, rather than the interests of union officials who may “have aspirations of seeking public office in the future.” Asked if he could see himself re-enrolling in UTLA's ranks someday, he had one word in reply: "Absolutely."