Biden can strengthen labor unions, with or without Congress
Two weeks ago, in a video posted on Twitter, President Biden supported the principles behind the effort to unionize 5,800 Amazon workers in Besemer, Ala: “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” he declared. “Every worker should have a free and fair chance to join a union.”
During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Action is urgently necessary. In 1983, 20 percent of workers in the United States were union members; in 2020, that’s down to about 10.8 percent. Among employees in the private sector, the decline was even more precipitous: from 17 to 7 percent. Studies by the Economic Policy Institute and Brookings attribute the drop in union membership, along with globalization and automation, as a significant factor in wage stagnation and inequality, with the largest impact on lower income workers.
Approval of labor unions, it is worth noting, is the highest it has been since 2003. In a Gallup poll conducted in 2020, 65 percent of respondents (comprised of 83 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Independents, and 45 percent of Republicans) expressed a positive view.
Now that he has signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (which appropriated $86 billion to ensure that 185 multi-employer union pension plans do not default on their obligations to more than 1 million retired truck drivers, retail clerks, builders, and others for the next 30 years), President Biden can make strengthening unions one of the highest priorities of his administration. Here’s how:
Enthusiastically endorsed by Biden, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO) would be the most far-reaching labor legislation in generations. Passed by the House of Representatives this week, PRO codifies into law Obama-era NLRB regulations permitting workplace email access to union organizers and restricting gerrymandered bargaining units; imposes strict requirements on classifying an individual as a contractor rather than an employee, with significant implications for gig workers; provides greater penalties for employers who violate labor laws and gives the NLRB the ability to impose larger fines for unfair labor practices; mandates binding arbitration for two years in negotiations over a first contract; bans “right-to-work” laws (in place in 27 states) which prohibit employers and unions from requiring workers to join or pay fees to the union as a condition of employment; forbids employers from permanently replacing strikers and allows workers to engage in secondary boycotts.
PRO faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate. If the bill does not pass, President Biden can blame Republicans and strengthen unions through executive actions. He has already signed an order restoring collective bargaining rights to federal workers. He removed Peter Robb, General Counsel of the NLRB, and Alice Stock, his deputy, who helped shield McDonalds’ Corporation from liability for the employment practices of its franchisees. Biden revoked a Trump administration ban on diversity and inclusion training in federal agencies. And he’s expected to issue an executive order within his first hundred days in office mandating that federal contractors grant emergency medical leave and pay their workers at least $15 an hour, a change affecting about 700,000 people, many of them in custodial and food service.
Other actions within Biden’s authority include restoring and expanding Obama-era rules extending overtime eligibility to about 4.2 million workers; increasing Labor Department staff tasked to investigate wage theft, worker safety violations, and the misclassification of workers; directing federal agencies to bargain with unions on non-mandatory issues.
Biden also wants to expand programs through the National Apprenticeship Act to train Americans for good paying jobs in disparate fields, including construction, manufacturing, technology, energy, and caregiving.
An historian recently asserted that Biden’s public support for workers voting to unionize is “almost unprecedented.” While the claim may be a bit hyperbolic, I’d say that since the 1970s, Republican presidents could be characterized as hostile to unions and Democrats as indifferent.
Joe Biden, who has long played up his blue-collar roots in Scranton, Pa., no doubt believes that strengthening unions is good politics as well as good policy — that could persuade working class American families in, say, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio to return to the political party to which they once pledged their allegiance.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”