Vaccine mandates test Biden ties with labor

President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE’s strong ties to labor unions could be put to the test by his administration's embrace of vaccine mandates. 

Biden on Thursday unveiled a much more heavy-handed approach to combating COVID-19 compared to what the administration has favored in the past. 

In a speech, he scolded vaccine-hesitant and vaccine-resistant people for rising numbers of infections and hospitalizations, and proceeded to announce a series of vaccine mandates on health workers, federal employees and contractors, and even private companies. 

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If they don't comply, they could face steep fines.

Labor unions are divided over the approach, as they seek to balance the need for workplace safety with addressing anti-vaccine sentiment among some of their members. 

Many unions have walked a fine line, encouraging members to get vaccinated without endorsing mandates.

But as private sector mandates have grown in popularity, unions have increasingly stressed the need for any potential measures to be collectively bargained before going into effect. 

The response to federal mandates was no different. 

“Our union has said that we should be working with, not opposing, our employers on their vaccine requirements, and making sure that people have a voice in their implementation to make sure that they are fairly implemented and the exemptions and the accommodations that need to happen, happen,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

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In its most recent resolution on vaccines in schools, the AFT encouraged all educators to be vaccinated, but didn’t call for a strict nationwide mandate. 

Instead, the group said that “as employers establish those vaccination policies, employees must have a voice in addressing the impact on workers through bargaining or other forms of consultation.”

Teachers, like other unions, are reluctant to tie the hands of local chapters, and there are some areas of the country where vaccine mandates are not an option. 

And while the national organizations may favor mandates, some local unions, like the New York State United Teachers, said they oppose the idea. 

State and local public sector unions, like law enforcement, have largely been opposed to vaccine mandates, though the International Association of Fire Chiefs has embraced the policy and called for mandatory vaccination after Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine gained full approval. 

Public sector unions’ demands could slow Biden’s federal vaccination campaign, and their resistance indicates that similar efforts by states and municipalities to close the gaps could face roadblocks as well.

Biden’s announcement triggered swift backlash from Republicans, with a handful of GOP governors accusing him of federal overreach and vowing to fight him in court.

But broadly, the administration has union support. 

New AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler praised Biden’s plan, while adding that "workers and unions should have a voice in shaping these policies.”

“Workplace COVID-19 safety plans should also include mitigation measures like ventilation, removing infected individuals, masking and training workers. These are necessary to prevent exposures and, in combination with vaccines, will get us out of this pandemic,” she said.

The administration was initially hesitant to impose vaccine mandates, preferring to lead by example and let the private sector implement mandates on its own. But as the delta variant gained a foothold and vaccinations continued to lag, Biden changed course. 

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us,” Biden said Thursday in comments directed towards unvaccinated people.

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Senior administration officials have said the new rules could impact two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, though some public health experts think it should be more. 

The mandate announcement comes off a week of Biden stepping up his engagement with labor unions and trying to garner more support with the pro-worker community. 

He reiterated his campaign promise to be “the most pro-union president” at an event at the White House on Wednesday and visited workers at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 313 in Wilmington, Del., on Monday.

Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said he doesn't think there's much of a risk of labor backlash.

“I think that [President Biden's] relationship with labor leaders in the labor movement, and popularity among members does make them more open to his leadership, and more willing to support the position he's advocating,” Sojourner said. 

“But I think part of why he's able to do it, and willing to do it, is because he knows this is actually something that will benefit working families, broadly, and the economy ... workers want to be healthy and safe, they want their families to be healthy and safe, and they don't want to catch COVID,” he added.

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As part of Biden's new push to force the issue on vaccinations, federal employees and contractors will have 75 days to be fully vaccinated with limited exemptions for religious or medical reasons. There will be no testing option.

The American Federation of Government Employees and AFL-CIO, the largest federal union, said they expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation. 

“Since President Biden made his first major announcement about changing COVID-19 protocols for the federal workforce in response to the surging Delta variant, we have said that changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate. Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement.