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October 2022

The Year of the Union Worker
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Midterms Turnout 'Whole Ball Game' for Workers, Unions

During the eleven years prior to the 1946 midterm elections, Americans discovered what it meant to have rights at work.

The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, passed by a progressive Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, had been life-altering. Unions were thriving, empowering their members to fight for better wages, shorter workdays, safer workplaces and more.

As workers organized and bargained, their enemies sharpened their knives. They undermined the nascent NLRA in federal court, branded union members as communists and, campaigning in 1946, wove a vicious web of conspiracy theories to frighten voters away from the party that stood with working people.

The majority of Americans, and certainly union members, knew better. Together, they had the power to prevent catastrophe.

If only enough of them had voted.

Instead, low turnout doomed their allies and swept their opponents into power. Only 37.1% of voters cast ballots, down more than 15 points from the 1944 presidential election.

Seven months later, in June 1947, Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed the most anti-union bill in the history of the American labor movement, the infamous Taft-Hartley Act.

The damage was swift and lasting, as IBEW General Counsel Jon Newman describes.

"Before Taft-Hartley, right-to-work didn't exist. Unions could organize supervisors. And unions could build power by having closed shops and protesting secondary employers effectively, especially on construction sites.

"With the stroke of a pen, because of the 1946 midterms, all of that was gone," Newman said.

President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, calling it a "shocking piece of legislation." But the midterms had given the GOP enough votes to override his veto.

"Taft-Hartley is unfair to the working people of this country," Truman railed in a speech. "It clearly abuses the right, which millions of our citizens now enjoy, to join together and bargain with their employers for fair wages and fair working conditions. Under no circumstances could I have signed this bill."

While unions grew between the 1950s and 1970s, building America's middle class, the obstacles they faced were enormous, and still are. For every union success, there have been many more failures.

Only now, 75 years later under the most pro-worker president since Roosevelt, are workers and unions poised to gain ground.

"President Biden has set the stage for progress like we haven't seen in nearly a century," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "He has appointed worker-friendly Cabinet members, agency heads, members of the National Labor Relations Board, and has made it clear that the federal government's policy is to support workers who want to join and organize unions, not impede them.

"But if we don't hold onto — or, far better, expand — our allies' slender majority in the House and Senate, that progress is going to come to a screeching halt."

Workers need to know who their allies are, Newman said.

"We first have to ask, who is on our side? Where do candidates stand on labor law, legislation, and the best economic interests of IBEW members?

"If you vote your economic interests, the choice is straightforward," he said. "Organized labor and the IBEW make the middle-class lifestyle possible. As a whole, Democrats support organized labor and Republicans do not. I wish it were not so stark. But these are the facts."

The midterm elections of 2010 were a near echo of 1946. Once again, low turnout devastated what had been strong pro-worker majorities in Congress. But the losses for workers in statehouses around the country dealt an even bigger blow.

"In over 20 states, legislative control flipped from Democratic to Republican control. In some states, the GOP seized trifecta control — meaning at the state level, they controlled the House, Senate, and the governors' mansion," Newman said.

In Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, for instance, the 2010 midterms led to the passage of right-to-work laws and the repeal of prevailing wage.

"Those are massive, real-world detrimental effects to the economic interests of IBEW members," Newman said. "All a result of low-turnout midterm elections."

Four years later, the 2014 midterms paved the way to the Supreme Court's crushing Janus v. AFSCME ruling in 2018, designed to weaken and ultimately destroy public sector unions nationwide, including many IBEW locals. Like right-to-work, it allows public workers to freeload, enjoying the wages, benefits, and job protections their unions negotiate without paying dues.

Newman said the Janus breadcrumbs start with Mitch McConnell becoming Senate majority leader after the midterms. McConnell did nothing but block President Obama's worker-friendly agenda, and brazenly refused to act on Obama's Supreme Court nominee in 2016, claiming it was too close to that year's elections — despite being nine months away. In 2018, the anti-union Janus ruling was decided by one vote.

Two years later, with less than five weeks to go to the 2020 elections, McConnell reversed his "too close" standard and rushed to confirm President Trump's third Supreme Court nominee. His actions created the current court, which is stacked 6-3 against workers and unions.

But America was designed with checks and balances, and a powerful Congress can correct unjust rulings — if voters elect lawmakers who will do it.

"It comes down to turnout. That's the whole ball game," Stephenson said. "It doesn't matter what you hear and read about long odds for the president's party in the midterms. Anything is possible if union members and our families and allies turn out to vote for the candidates who will fight for our economic security.

"I'm talking about candidates who can back up their promises with track records of pro-worker votes and service, not the phonies spewing empty words that mean nothing after Election Day."

Stephenson stressed that early in-person and mail voting are already underway in many states. "It's never been easier to cast our ballots," he said. "We are so close to the goal line, so close to real change. Together, finally, we can push our way across it."


Read more: The Year of the Union Worker
Midterm Elections to Determine Progress or Impasse at Labor Board Read Midterm Elections


Previous low-turnout midterm elections ushered in lawmakers who targeted union members with legislation like the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which introduced right-to-work and made secondary strikes illegal.

Source: Economic Policy Institute