Unions struggle to secure wins under Biden

Unions and labor advocates with high hopes that President Biden would help deliver on major priorities like raising wages and increasing worker power have few if any concrete victories to point to as Biden approaches 100 days in office.

A $15 minimum wage provision was jettisoned from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan; labor’s top legislative priority, the PRO Act, is once again stalled in the Senate; and a union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama was soundly defeated.   

Union leaders argue that Biden is still delivering on his campaign promise to be a pro-union president and that progress has been slow going because of razor-thin Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But many progressive groups say Biden needs to be fighting harder for unions, especially with unified control of the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade, and that words of support like in the Amazon union fight aren’t enough.

“It’s great that Biden is saying that he does care about these things but until we see tangible differences, until we see the PRO Act get passed, it’s hard really to say that that in itself is a victory,” said Ellen Sciales, press secretary of the progressive Sunrise Movement.

She indicated that Biden could do more by calling for abolishing the filibuster to increase the odds of such legislation getting through the Senate. 

“Biden has put out a lot of our priorities, things that we have called for, but seems to be really sheepish about going big because of this idea of bipartisanship.”

The Democratic-led House passed the PRO Act in a mostly party-line vote in March, just like it passed it in the previous Congress before it languished in the Senate. Unions say the bill, which would stiffen penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights and strengthen protections for employees against retaliation, is their top legislative priority.

Biden called for Congress to pass PRO Act, which is unlikely to get 10 Republican votes in the Senate to overcome the legislative filibuster, as part of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure package. But even that provision runs the risk of being removed by the Senate parliamentarian, just like the $15 minimum wage, if Democrats go the budget reconciliation route, which they’re increasingly likely to do.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, said it’s important that Biden spoke out like he did last month when backing the union efforts in Alabama, while noting that he didn’t go beyond making remarks.

“He was using his administration, he was using his voice, he was using his credibility, he was using the power of his office in demonstrating his full throttle support of organizing. It was not just speaking to Amazon workers, he was speaking to the nation,” Bruno said.

Still, Bruno said, unions need to grow to be more successful, and Biden has implemented policies to advance the interest of workers, like the American Rescue Plan, but not to expand union influence.

“I think organized labor would be very pleased with the Biden administration’s overall approach to public health and economic issues,” Bruno said. “Now, none of those things in and of itself necessarily is increasing new membership.”

William Gould, professor at Stanford Law School specializing in labor and employment, said the mere fact that Biden weighed in on the Amazon fight was notable, even though the union lost.

“Although Amazon was a defeat for the union, no president in the almost 86 years history of the National Labor Relations Act has intervened as he did in a labor dispute,” said Gould, who was chairman of the National Labor Relations Board during the Clinton administration.

Amazon won the Alabama fight by a wide margin: 1,798 votes to 738.

Biden’s union allies are quick to defend the president.

“100 days of a president who supports workers and isn’t afraid to say the word union. 100 days and COVID-19 relief is finally here. 100 days and we already have a plan to build back better with unions by investing in infrastructure and passing the PRO Act. 100 days and we’re just getting started,” said Tim Schlittner, AFL-CIO communications director.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called Biden “the most pro-labor president since FDR, with a policy agenda to match.”

Biden took several early steps favored by unions, from firing the Trump-era general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board on Inauguration Day to nominating Marty Walsh to serve as the secretary of Labor. Walsh was sworn in in March.

“Joe Biden has shown everyone that he meant what he said during the campaign—his administration would keep working people front and center,” said Beth Allen, spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America.

“From nominating a union member as Secretary of Labor, to including the PRO Act as part of his infrastructure package, to saying in no uncertain terms that union membership improves workers’ lives, President Biden is keeping his promises to working families,” she said. 

Experts argue that until labor laws are overhauled, there’s only so much unions and a president can do.

“Until we get — from the organized labor perspective — some major change to laws that govern organizing in this country, it’s going to be hard to organize in large enough numbers where you begin to see some real significant difference in the leverage that employees have to bargain better contracts,” Bruno said. “The PRO Act would in fact bring significant change to the laws that govern who can be in a union.”

Instead, Biden has taken some executive action, like signing an order on his second day in office ordering recommendations for raising the minimum wage for federal employees.

But progressive groups like Justice Democrats are keeping the pressure on Biden and Vice President Harris to “now present their plan” for delivering a $15 minimum wage before midterm campaigns get underway, when Democrats are hoping to defend their majorities.

The administration has not yet released a plan on how to raise the minimum wage.

“I think the issue isn’t going away,” Gould said on raising the wage. “Obviously, it was a disappointment. Biden’s not been dealt a good hand in terms of the composition of Congress.”

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders called Biden’s first 100 days a “remarkable start” but said there is more work to do.

“The president understands that the freedom to organize a union is one of the best ways to make sure workers earn fair wages and good benefits, have job security as well as safety and protections in the workplace,” Saunders said.

Tags Alabama Joe Biden Marty Walsh

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