The Boston Review has a forum on Trump's victory, with responses by Joshua Cohen, Janice Fine, Judith Levine and Robin Kelley. Janice Fine:
Unions, more than any other institution of American life, have been the vehicles through which working-class people, often across boundaries of gender, race, and ethnicity, have organized to have their say, assert their power, and ensure their share of the economic pie. For these reasons, aside from the New Deal interregnum, they have come under unceasing attack.
With the decline of manufacturing, workers no longer inherited union membership when they arrived at the shop. Instead unions had to undertake massive new organizing in other sectors of the economy. But employers resisted them at every turn and repeated attempts at labor law reform fell short. Attempting to organize a union often got workers harassed, threatened, fired, or deported. Even when they won elections, many employers just refused to come to the bargaining table until the clock ran out. Going on strike got workers locked out and permanently replaced. Between 1978 and 2000, the unionization rate among workers with high school degrees fell from 37.9 percent to 20.4 percent.
The Democratic Party, hugely reliant on union money and volunteers, fell increasingly in thrall to the corporate elite and the free trade consensus. It seldom made defending the right to organize a priority in recent years. Today unions represent just 6.7 percent of private-sector workers, and the forces of the right are tireless in their effort to consign public-sector unions to the same fate.
In 2009 the number of union members in the public sector outnumbered those in the private sector for the first time in American history. Public-sector workers have a union membership rate (about 35 percent) which is more than five times higher than private-sector workers. They were a main reason organized labor continued to fight above its weight class in politics. Thus, attacking collective bargaining rights and ending labor’s ability to have union dues deducted from members’ paychecks rose to the top of the right’s political agenda.
Grover Norquist, one of the top strategists of the conservative movement since the Reagan era, wrote after the election of George W. Bush that in order to maintain Republican control, the Bush administration needed to gut unions. To do so, Norquist urged Bush to focus on ending labor’s ability to have dues deducted from member paychecks. “Every worker who doesn’t join the union is another worker who doesn’t pay $500 a year to organized labor’s political machine,” he argued.