America’s top labor leaders had extremely high hopes going into the November general election. Many opinion polls pointed to the possibility of a “blue wave”: a landslide victory for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, a new Democratic majority in the US Senate, and an expanded Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. The most optimistic scenarios raised the prospect of previously unthinkable conquests like winning control of the Texas legislature’s lower house for the first time in decades, which would have given Democrats a seat at the table in redistricting a big and increasingly competitive state. After years of withering defeats, it looked as if organized labor’s loyalty to the Democratic Party might finally pay off in a badly needed round of legal reform and economic restructuring. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Mary Kay Henry summed up the heady atmosphere that prevailed in labor’s higher circles during the closing weeks of the campaign: “I think it’s going to be a combination of the New Deal, the Marshall Plan and the 1960s Civil Rights Act all in one administration.”1
In the end, the voters poured cold water on these fervid expectations. Biden defeated Trump for the presidency, but not as decisively as many expected. He had very short coattails, and down-ballot Democrats lost many of the races they were widely forecast to win. They achieved a fifty-fifty Senate split by flipping both of Georgia’s seats in January’s runoff, which will create some breathing room for meaningful economic recovery policies. Even so, while Kamala Harris nominally holds the tiebreaking vote as vice president, the chamber’s balance of power will ultimately rest in the hands of conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Democrats retained their House majority but failed to beat a single Republican incumbent and lost at least eight seats of their own, yielding the slimmest majority since the 1940s. They made no meaningful gains at the state level, where Republicans will draw redistricting maps that protect their incumbents for the next decade. The worst possible outcome — a second Trump administration — was avoided, and a relatively pro-union administration will help labor at the margins and provide a measure of breathing room from GOP attacks. But the election cycle likely did not move the needle far enough to make a fundamental difference in organized labor’s fortunes.
The US labor movement heads into the new decade with uncertain and contradictory prospects. There are some genuine grounds for restrained optimism. Public approval of labor unions is at its highest level in fifty years, and pro-worker policies like minimum wage increases enjoy widespread popular support.2 Hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike in the last two years, many of them in open defiance of their employers and the law, and their actions left a clear mark on the political landscape. The labor platforms of the major Democratic Party candidates ranged from decent to excellent, and there is now a nascent pro-labor, social democratic faction within the party. Popular concern with inequality and workplace health and safety during the pandemic has put workers’ needs and interests squarely on the political agenda. At the same time, however, decades of retrenchment have taken their toll on labor, both politically and organizationally. Unions suffer from overconcentration in specific sectors and geographic areas, as does the new Left represented by groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The 2020s could yield breakthroughs for American workers and the Left, but achieving them will require a level of organization and political activity capable of fighting strong headwinds that will prove very difficult to overcome.