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The Dartmouth
April 24, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Karty: Congress and the Courts Are Wrong About Unions

As anti-labor decisions flood out of the Supreme Court and politicians bust unions, Americans need to let the government know that we care.

Amidst the current uproar about the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, one topic is notably absent from discourse: unions and workers’ rights. On June 1, the Supreme Court ordered a workers union to pay for damages incurred during their strike in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. Teamsters. Before that, Janus v. The AFSCME overturned unions’ ability to collect fees from non-union members, while Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid severely limited unions’ ability to speak to workers. These decisions show that this Supreme Court is the most anti-labor Court in nearly a century. All of these decisions overturned decades — sometimes nearly a century — of precedent, laws and widely accepted doctrines. These decisions all but spit in the face of current unions. 

The real-world ramifications are drastic: If bakers strike, they could be liable for rotten bread or produce. Factory workers could be sued for damages to equipment due to lack of daily repair. While sales people can talk to workers, unions often cannot. Pro-business courts are aided by pro-business legislative branches in forcibly ending strikes and stripping union power. The message to workers is clear: courts are not on your side. 

Yet, it was not always this way. In the early 1900s, unions were a driving force in American political life. In the infamous election of 1912, the Republican party fractured. Candidates distinguished themselves chiefly by positions on labor rights and vied for endorsements from unions. This period ushered in a new era of big-business regulation and economically progressive policies. The Department of Labor was founded in 1913, which helped guarantee safe working conditions. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and established The National Labor Relations board, which created a neutral body to fairly regulate strikes and unions. A plethora of court decisions affirmed these rights, including NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon and Garner v. Teamsters. 

Today, this world seems foreign to us. Unions and workers’ rights play a minuscule role in US elections, with both Democrats and Republicans doing little to support workers. Protecting union rights, which used to be a main-stay of the Democratic platform, is now relegated to the fringes of the party. Workers’ rights have all but left mainstream US political conversation, replaced instead with “cultural” issues. As these cultural issues fill screen time, workers’ rights slowly erode. Union participation steadily dropped to a 100-year low of only 10.3% participation in 2019. 

Yet, unions are making a come-back. Despite constant legal backlash, people are beginning to recognise the value of unions. The tight labor market, cost of living crisis and ease of communication via social media is ushering in a new age of union participation and support. In fact, following decades of decline, public sector union membership increased by 1.9% from 2021 to 2022 and support for unions reached a 57-year high of 71% in 2022. Workers are finally finding their footing again.

Union support is a strongly bipartisan issue, evidenced by the countless movements across the country, including Dartmouth students, Starbucks baristas in New York, Tesla workers in Texas, writers in California, grocery store workers in the Northwest and John Deere factory workers in the Midwest. People are finding it hard to detest their ideological counterparts when they are facing similar struggles. It is hard to care about nebulous, culture war issues when you are being denied a raise for the fifth year in a row. Unions cut through the political divide — forcing people to see past reductive labels and uniting people towards a collective goal. 

At every turn, however, courts and policy-makers sabotage these efforts — peeling back already limited rights. At a time when union support is higher than it’s been in the past 50 years, this highlights a much larger trend: workers’ economic interests are not represented in government. 

The reason for this is rather obvious: unions are wildly unpopular among executives. For years, large businesses have pushed anti-union narratives, such as “unions are greedy,” “they cause inflation” or “they are socialist.” These claims have been tirelessly refuted. First, unions are mostly seeking bare-minimum working standards. While some claim inflation is caused by increasing blue collar wages, inflation is primarily caused by lack of competition and high costs of raw materials. Additionally, unions are not socialist; they are necessary institutions for a functioning and fair capitalist society. America has had unions in the past — during that time inequality was lower, workers’ pay kept up with productivity, and the economy still flourished. Now, as wages stall despite record wealth and technology, people are no longer accepting flawed anti-union claims.

Unions are popular. They are empirically effective at improving working conditions. And voters need to let politicians know that we care. 

Just like in 1912, this issue has the potential to change the face of American politics — perhaps not a “class war” as some would like to believe, but at the very least a much-needed shift in priorities. Perhaps voters will care less about children's books in Florida or Bud Lite ad-campaigns, and more about the Supreme Court crushing their union, Congress forcing them into a wage deal, or senators soft-balling Howard Schultz as he explains why they don’t deserve a pay raise. 

Even as futile cultural issues are plastered across headlines, beneath the surface a new political landscape is brewing — one where labels that seem steadfast are truly challenged — and “the culture war” dies not from backlash, but indifference.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.