Administration

Biden endures up-and-down first year on labor issues

President Biden speaks to Senate Pages on Wednesday, January 12, 2022 after visiting the Capitol to pay his respects to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as he lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
Greg Nash

President Biden, who ran on the promise of being the most pro-labor president in history, has struggled to secure pro-worker legislation during his first year in office and recently clashed with major unions over his administration’s COVID-19 policies.

The administration’s decision to weaken COVID-19 isolation guidelines and rescind the emergency temporary standard for health care worker protections puts Biden in rare disagreement with labor unions.

Still, labor leaders point to the American Rescue Plan and bipartisan infrastructure law as two of Biden’s many pro-worker victories and blame the tight Democratic majority in the Senate for failing to deliver on other legislative priorities like the PRO Act and Build Back Better plan. 

Unions pushed hard for the infrastructure package, which Biden says will create around 2 million jobs per year for a decade and ensure workers on construction projects are paid fair wages.

“President Biden was successful when other administrations have repeatedly failed to pass a bipartisan infrastructure package to fix the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, waterways, and airports,” said Ray Curry, president of the United Auto Workers, who added that the bill includes strong labor standards.

Unions also highlight the American Rescue Plan, a top priority in particular for public sector unions, which were facing the threat of state budget cuts that would cost government workers their jobs without the bill’s influx of federal aid. 

The labor movement has felt burned by previous presidents who ran on a pro-worker agenda but ultimately sided with corporate giants in key battles.

“He made promises that he actually kept,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler told The Hill of Biden. “It wasn’t necessarily a surprise because we always knew that Joe Biden had unions in his heart and looked through a worker’s lens, but it was a refreshing change, certainly, from the previous administration and even past Democratic administrations.” 

Biden, though, has been criticized by unions representing front-line workers in the pandemic for cutting down on safety measures.

The National Nurses United called recent moves to decrease the COVID-19 isolation period and to rescind the emergency temporary standard that mandated health care worker protections “a one-two gut punch.” It teamed up with the AFL-CIO last week to petition the Biden administration to issue a permanent standard.

The union said it was a failure that the standard wasn’t made permanent and argued the new isolation guidance “will only further expose nurses working at the bedside to unsafe conditions.”

The White House, in response, highlighted the administration’s focus on mask-wearing and the recently upheld vaccine mandate for health care providers at federally funded facilities as measures to protect health care workers.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, has criticized the isolation guidelines, as well as the administration’s testing program.

“I could be critical of the lack of COVID tests and what appears to be a choice to value the economy over public health, because the administration feels it can’t undo the harm from the previous White House, the courts packed to stop every effort to protect our health and the patchwork of policies in every state, county and city across the nation,” she said.

Nelson said policies like mask mandates in transportation networks, stopping violence on planes and funding to support aviation workers’ jobs were successes out of the administration.

In another public disagreement, Biden urged Chicago’s mayor and the Chicago Teachers Union earlier this month to settle a debate to keep schools open while teachers argued there weren’t enough COVID-19 safety precautions in place.

Still, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a national teachers union, has advocated for schools to stay open and is positive about Biden’s union record so far.

“Joe Biden is the most pro-labor president since FDR — and maybe ever,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “His goals are clear, to rebuild the middle class, improve the economy, and deliver fairness for the marginalized and the disadvantaged — all while dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic.”

Labor leaders point to Biden’s decision to fire Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) official Peter Robb on his first day in office — a move that outraged corporate trade groups — as an early signal that Biden would be far more pro-worker than his Democratic predecessors.

“That was the kind of decisive action that sent a loud and clear message that he was not going to allow government to be used to further rig the rules toward corporations in this country,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

Biden replaced Robb, a longtime opponent of unions, with former Communications Workers of America lawyer Jennifer Abruzzo. Biden successfully pushed Senate Democrats to confirm NLRB members Gwynne Wilcox and David Prouty, both former SEIU lawyers, amid heavy opposition from business groups.

Labor leaders see the NLRB and Labor Department, which is stocked with former union officials and led by card-carrying union member Marty Walsh, as key forces in advancing pro-worker priorities without help from Congress. The Biden administration is gearing up to issue pro-worker rules surrounding overtime pay and gig worker benefits, while also seeking to make it easier for employees to organize.

“We finally have an administration that is speaking to us and is really trying to advance policies that help working people and the economy,” said Roxanne Brown, international vice president of the United Steelworkers, which pushed Biden to open a new office dedicated to steering federal dollars to U.S. companies.

Walsh, the vice chair of the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment that Biden created by executive order, told The Hill that the administration is committed to pro-union policies.

“I’ve seen firsthand the Biden administration’s commitment to unions and to protecting the power of collective bargaining,” the secretary said. “The president plans to create millions of good-paying union jobs through implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and remains committed to other pro-worker legislative priorities.”

Unions’ top legislative priority, though, wasn’t delivered in the first year in office. The House-passed PRO Act, which hasn’t moved in the Senate, would stiffen penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights and strengthen protections for employees against retaliation.

Biden included it in his initial Build Back Better agenda, which doesn’t have the votes in the Senate to pass. Similarly, Biden wasn’t able to add a $15 minimum wage provision to the American Rescue Plan.

“The PRO Act could have been the most significant thing he has done to help unions, to create a legal regime that would favor the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director at Our Revolution. “[Biden] didn’t use any muscle to get transformative labor law, legislation, across the finish line.”

Tags Build Back Better Infrastructure Joe Biden Labor rights Marty Walsh

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