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Trump and Biden may be ignoring America’s 130 million nonunion workers–but these voters will be seeking a champion to elect in November

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Following decisive wins in the Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina primaries, Donald Trump is rapidly emerging as the likely Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential elections. With another Trump-Biden contest increasingly solidified, voters are once again comparing two leading candidates who are vastly different, both ideologically and politically. But there is one area where the two candidates converge: industrial and trade policies.

The Biden administration proclaims itself the most “pro-union” presidency ever. Meanwhile, Trump claims to champion America’s blue-collar workers. The two sides recently squabbled over who would support the striking auto unions in Michigan and raced to visit their picket lines.

Billions of U.S. dollars have gone to ushering in new union jobs. The Biden administration’s CHIPS and Science Act invests heavily in construction and manufacturing jobs. Both administrations strategically increased tariffs or imposed quotas on steel and aluminum imports to drive domestic demand. Both administrations aggressively enforced labor rights abroad, nearly exclusively in the auto sector, where U.S. jobs have waned.

The beneficiaries under both administrations’ policies are union workers in manufacturing, steel, and aluminum. They are among the 10% of unionized workers, a total of 14.3 million workers out of 141.6 million. While the two sides battle over “America’s workers,” they jointly leave the vast majority of workers who are not represented by unions vulnerable to policy preferences and resource priorities decided without them.

Nonunion workers–130 million of them–will decide how to cast their votes in November. If they were to vote on labor policy alone, it’s easy to see how they might feel disillusioned. These workers are not represented, do not hold political capital, and, consequently, do not have a seat at the policymaking table. Yet, as my work shows, federal labor laws currently make it nearly impossible for those workers to aggregate and build their power.

Union workers enjoy several advantages. Not only are their wages generally higher and the benefits more plentiful, but they are also neatly organized by sectors and affiliations, ensuring easy access and strategic political presence. Both administrations have regularly consulted with union leaders. Both administrations have shared confidential developments concerning trade policy with union leaders before opening discussions to the general public. Unions owe their fee-paying members a fiduciary duty to advance their interests and protect them.

Most labor advocates will point out that the labor departments under the Biden administration have removed longstanding barriers to unionization (although we could quibble), but that view neglects the majority of workers who either elect not to unionize or work in states, mainly in the South, hostile to unionization.

However, this blind spot also represents a huge opportunity for the candidate who can offer non-union workers a seat at the table. Joe Biden or Donald Trump could do so by consulting with representatives from nonunion sectors, such as the auto sector in Alabama or domestic workers in Texas. Worker centers and other union alternatives already have established connections among those workers. They’ve fought and lost battles with legislators unwilling to protect them and clashed with large unions unwilling to affiliate with small, impoverished, and otherwise marginalized communities. Those representatives stand ready and willing to facilitate participation.

The candidates can also offer nonunion workers an equal opportunity to participate in federal advisory committees, such as the Labor Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and Trade Policy, currently composed exclusively of union leaders advocating for their members’ interests. And both candidates have ample staff across the states capable of visiting nonunion workplaces to engender conversations that expose the unique needs of America’s workers around the country. Those consultative processes will need to be reflected in executive and administrative orders to guarantee that nonunion workers matter in the long term, after their November votes.

Of course, by supporting big unions, both administrations indirectly support nonunion workers. After all, when unions raise wages, many nonunion workers benefit. When unions allocate their resources to advance politicians prepared to divert resources into public services and benefits, Americans–union members or not–in need of those services benefit. We are certainly better off with unions than without them.

In a world of scarce resources and priorities, however, nonunion workers bear the costs of current industrial and trade policies. Many work in downstream sectors that rely on affordable inputs and exports that rely on reciprocity and global demand.

The disparate treatment of nonunion workers calls for a new approach to federal policymaking carried out in the name of workers. We do not need to close the door to unions. But if we hope to see fair and equitable industrial and trade policies post-election–whichever direction the pendulum swings–those policies must reflect consultations across all workers, not just the relatively privileged.

Desirée LeClercq is an assistant professor of Labor Law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Prior to joining the law faculty at Cornell, she worked as a director for labor affairs at the United States Trade Representative, as a legal officer at the International Labor Organization, and as a staff attorney for the Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.

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