A labor victory in the new Congress depends on the definition of what it means to win. Labor’s broad agenda is passable in almost inverse relationship to that agenda’s capacity to strengthen the institutional and political power of trade unionism itself. This has been true for more than forty years, ever since the mid-1960s, when, during the second of the two great surges of liberal legislation in the last century (the mid-1930s is the other one) civil rights, Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education passed with relative ease, while the repeal of 14b, which allowed Southern and Western states to pass and maintain right-to-work laws had no chance in a Congress dominated by ostensible liberals.
Today’s Congress is far less liberal than that of forty-two years ago, and of course there is a right-wing Republican in the White House, but the dynamic is much the same. Those elements of labor’s agenda that are the least attached to the institutional needs of trade unionism per se have the best chance of passage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it provides some guidance for labor strategists.