After 50 years of decline, the labor movement sees an opening to reverse that trend with the election of a Congress controlled by Democrats.
And they are starting an intense campaign Friday to win passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposal that would make it easier to form a union.
"Ensuring workers rights to organize is a very important part of the reason we do the political work we do," said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO.
Labor delivered millions of votes for the Democratic Party in the 2006 midterm elections and is outlining what it wants from the Democratic-controlled Congress in return.
So the AFL-CIO, a federation of more than 50 unions, holds its two-day organizing summit Friday and Saturday with a principal goal of mapping out how to get that legislation passed in the next term of Congress.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday after meeting with union officials that she expects Congress will move in early 2007 toward passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
That measure would help reverse a trend that has seen union strength drop to its lowest levels membership levels ever, union officials say.
"Bargaining rights have been destroyed in this country," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America and chair of the AFL-CIO's organizing committee.
"For all of us who believe there is a squeeze on the middle class, there's a direct link between the destruction of collective bargaining rights in the county and declining health care and retirement benefits, as well as the stagnation of wages."
Union activists say the right of workers to organize in unions is widely recognized in most democracies around the world. But they say when workers in the United States try to organize, they often face aggressive campaigning by employers to prevent the formation of a union.
Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, said that thousands of workers are fired each year for trying to form unions.
When the AFL-CIO merged in the 1950s, one of every three private-sector workers belonged to a labor union. Now, only about 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.
That steady downward trend gained momentum when President Reagan was in office, labor officials say, and unions have faced many obstacles with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress in recent years.
The bipartisan-sponsored Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to form unions by simply signing a card or petition, impose stronger penalties on employers who violate labor laws, and allow for arbitration to settle first contract disputes.
Leading business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose the legislation, saying workers should be allowed to vote on forming a union by secret ballot, rather than signing a card or petition.
"We got to this point by having corporations subvert the National Labor Relations Act," said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steel Workers. "Presidents of both parties have appointed weak-kneed folks to the labor board." He was referring to the National Labor Relations Board, which has been criticized by organized labor for several recent decisions.
In October, the NLRB ruled that nurses permanently assigned to run work shifts should be considered supervisors and thus exempt from U.S. labor protections. The decision could eventually affect workers with supervisory duties in other fields, labor analysts said.
Labor activists believe they can get the Employee Free Choice Act through Congress soon if they make a determined effort. But they said it might not be signed into law under the current administration.
"Passing the Employee Free Choice Act at this moment in Congress is very important to us," said Ackerman, who acknowledged it might take election of a Democrat as president to finish the job. "We will keep mobilizing and organizing until it is signed into law."