By Maya Rhodan
– Who won this election cycle? Union leaders say they did.
Across the country, candidates backed by unions triumphed over their counterparts, while ballot measures broke in favor of the unions that had campaigned for them as well. “Yesterday was not only a victory for unions, but a victory for working families,” Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, tells TIME.
In Toledo, Ohio, councilman D. Michael Collins defeated incumbent mayor Mike Bell, riding anger over Bell’s antiunion policies. In Boston, former labor boss Martin Walsh was endorsed by national and local labor groups and is now the mayor-elect. And in New York City, Bill de Blasio is now the first Democratic mayor after two decades of Republican reign, thanks in part to early support from the health-care-workers’ union, SEIU 1199. In Cincinnati, voters rejected a pension-reform ballot initiative, while in New Jersey and Washington State they raised the minimum wage.
The victories are a change for the beleaguered labor unions, which have struggled for influence in recent years as national and state leaders have enacted right-to-work laws, vetoed bills to raise the minimum wage, and run and won on antiunion platforms.
Governors in Ohio and Wisconsin reduced the collective-bargaining rights of public workers. Michigan and Indiana joined 22 states in 2012 and enacted right-to-work laws that curb union power. And over the past three decades, both public and private membership in unions has steadily declined.
“From place to place, the labor movement has been under immense pressure,” says Matt Morrison, the political director for Working America, an AFL-CIO ally organization that builds alliances among nonunion workers. “Yesterday, we reasserted our agenda.”
Working America was one of the many unions and super PACs on the ground in Boston canvassing for mayor-elect Walsh, and the group worked in states across the country to push prolabor candidates and ballot measures. Nine of the eleven candidates they were pushing for are heading into office, and their positions on minimum wage prevailed, Morrison says.
It’s not clear whether the union influence will continue or revert to past cycles of decline. “We have a major challenge coming in 2014, and we have important battles to fight at the state and national levels,” says Mike Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO. “We are hoping this is a harbinger of how the electorate is feeling and gives us momentum.”