“Together, the Democrats and labor made a middle-class America,” Tip O’Neill, then Speaker of the House, declared in 1981. “We put together thirty of the greatest, fruitful and beneficial years that a democracy ever had.”  

The late, great Speaker didn’t know how far the tide would recede. In the decades since, as economic inequality has risen, we have lost the political means to combat it. We have entered a doom loop between the Democrats and the labor movement.  

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The loop works like this: Unions are in decline. As a result, unions lose influence inside the Democratic Party. The Democrats then feel no pressure to stem unions’ decline, and the economically disadvantaged lose what was once their most powerful advocate. Then the cycle continues. We cannot revive unions, and we have no template for egalitarian politics without them. 

Unions aren’t simply economic actors. They’re political actors. Labor still needs the Democrats. The Democrats, more than they realize, still need labor. But most of all, all those who want to build a fairer society need their partnership.

Republican elites understand the doom loop. Big business, small business, and Tea Party alike have pushed hard against unions. As the parties have polarized, Republicans have taken the gloves off, risking the votes of the 40 percent of union members who back Republicans in order to crush a pillar of the Democratic coalition. Even President Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCongress digs in for prolonged Saudi battle Santorum: Dems have a chance in 2020 if they pick someone ‘unexpected’ Dems have new moniker for Trump: ‘Unindicted co-conspirator' MORE would have real trouble rebuilding unions in the face of a Republican Congress and a federal judiciary eager to swat down pro-labor executive action. 

Even without Republican politicians digging their graves, labor unions face deep challenges. In the private sector, unions must sign contracts workplace by workplace. Gawker writers here and home-care workers there will continue to organize their workplaces, but the barriers remain dauntingly high. In the public sector, unions have stood steady. But cops and teachers alike face blowback for putting their own prerogatives above the public interest. And if the Supreme Court bans the collection of agency fees in the public sector (thus imposing “right to work”), public-sector union membership could halve in a decade.

What if, as in 2008, Democrats somehow win unified Democratic control of the federal government? Even that rosy scenario would hardly prove enough. The Senate filibuster has repeatedly throttled labor-law reform. Without new rules, it surely will again. Labor unions have declined across the rich democracies, but most in the United States and least in Scandinavia. The Scandinavian countries have universalist social programs, social democratic parties, and strong unions at both the national and the plant level. These ingredients all reinforce each other. None of them exists here.

The political consequences are severe. Democrats need unions to build a minimum winning presidential coalition. Their road to victory in the Electoral College still runs through the big, once-industrial states organized by the CIO in the New Deal years: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio. 

The policy consequences are worse. Without unions to institutionalize them, waves of activism dissipate. The Occupy movement in 2011 fizzled when the tents cleared. Fast-food strikes call attention to a minimum wage that has declined by a third in real terms since 1968, and galvanize immediate victories. But can they use their energy to build organization for the long haul? Without unions, how can we bring immigration, race, gender, and sexual orientation and gender identity together with struggles over dollars and cents? These are not separate fights, not when immigrant workers get ripped off on the job, when median white wealth is thirteen times median black wealth, when women still earn seventy-seven cents to men’s dollar, and when LGBT people – married or unmarried – face legal discrimination in employment and housing. 

The Democratic Party is contested terrain, a complex battleground where various groups and politicians vie to control policy and power. As unions fade, who will push the party toward egalitarian politics, aiding the poor and the middle class alike? State and local party committees are the closest to unions on the ground, but they are hamstrung by complex regulations, and lack national clout. As elections become ever more expensive, power shifts to the sliver of wealthy funders that bankrolls both parties. Yet attacking inequality means redistributing income, and maybe even wealth, away from the top 1 percent – and, more difficult still, from the merely affluent. It means rewriting the rules of the economy so the rich don’t continue to soak up the lion’s share of the gains. And those are tough sells, even to liberals with deep pocketbooks. 

Perhaps understanding these dynamics will force the other actors in the Democratic tent into action. The leading Democratic think tanks have moved left on economics, and the superrich liberals in the Democracy Alliance have begun to partner with labor. But that’s a far cry from connecting people and building power where unions used to be. And without a map to avoid the doom loop, it’s going to be a long journey.

Schlozman is an assistant professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.