Two months into the new administration, union leaders are proclaiming Joseph R. Biden Jr. the most union-friendly president of their lives – and “maybe ever,” as Steve Rosenthal, former AFL-CIO political director, said in an interview.
Mr Biden has moved quickly to oust government officials who the unions viewed as anti-labor and to reverse the Trump-era rules that undermined worker protection. He has enforced laws that send hundreds of billions of dollars to cities and states, aid that public sector unions consider essential, and tens of billions to prop up unions’ pension plans.
Perhaps most notably, the president appeared on a video hinting at a union vote in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, warning that “there should be no intimidation, coercion, threats, anti-union propaganda” – an unusually outspoken one Step from a president in a standard union election.
Still, Mr Rosenthal and other supporters of the work admit a nagging concern: Despite Mr Biden’s remarkable support for their movement, unions may not be much better off leaving his post than entering it.
This is because labor law gives employers considerable powers to defend themselves against trade union organizations. This is one reason union membership has plummeted to record lows in recent decades. And Senate Republicans will seek to thwart any legislative attempts – like the PRO bill the House passed this month – to reverse that trend.
“The PRO law is vital,” said Rosenthal. “But what is happening now regarding Republicans in Congress, the Senate filibuster, is everyone’s guess.”
Until recently, it was far from clear that Mr Biden would govern in such a union-friendly manner. Although he has long advocated the union’s advantage and has maintained close relationships with union leaders, the president also has ties to big names like Steve Ricchetti, an adviser to the president who was a lobbyist for companies like AT&T and Eli Lilly. Mr Biden voted for a free trade agreement over the years, which the unions voted against.
Add to this the fact that he served as a vice president in a government that sometimes angered the unions when President Barack Obama stepped in on behalf of a Rhode Island school district that fired faculty from an underperforming school. Mr Biden was also the captain of an Obama administration team that negotiated with Republicans to reduce the deficit.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Mr Biden’s allies and advisers argued that he had merely acted as the loyal deputy of his boss and that as president he would prove more in tune with work.
But for many workers who had doubts, Mr. Biden exceeded expectations. Shortly after he was sworn in as President, the White House called for the resignation of the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel, Peter B. Robb, whose office enforces the labor rights of private sector workers.
Mr Robb was deeply unpopular about organized work, which he viewed as overly management-friendly. His term was due to expire in November, and the Presidents of both parties have allowed the Advocates General to extend their term.
However, since no letter of resignation was received from Mr. Robb on the day of his inauguration, the White House fired him.
“What was really promising and exciting for those of us who took care of it was the dismissal of Peter Robb and the dramatic way it came about,” said Lisa Canada, the political and legislative director of the state joiners’ union in Michigan.
However, it is the Alabama video that most clearly highlights the differences between Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama when it comes to work. When state officials flocked to Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011 to protest Governor Scott Walker’s plan to withdraw their bargaining rights, union leaders asked the White House to send a senior government official out of solidarity. The White House refused, despite Mr Obama saying the plan was like an “attack on the unions”.
“We have made every effort to get someone there,” said Larry Cohen, who was then president of Communications Workers of America and is now chairman of the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution. “You wouldn’t allow anyone to leave.”
In contrast, Mr Biden appeared anxious to make his statement on the Amazon elections that a number of union leaders had asked him to make.
“We haven’t seen so much support for the organization since Franklin Roosevelt,” said Cohen, who expected Amazon’s statement to discourage anti-union behavior by employers.
Still, Mr Cohen and other labor officials said that without a change in labor law, union membership would likely take a path under Mr Biden that was similar to Mr Obama when the proportion of workers in unions fell about 1.5 percentage points. Overall, union membership has fallen from around a third of workers in the 1950s to just over a tenth today, and in the private sector to just 6 percent.
“Because of growing inequality, our economy is on a path of implosion,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in an interview. The PRO Act “will raise wages and slow down this path,” he added.
Under current law, employers can inundate workers with anti-union messages – through mandatory meetings, emails and signs in the workplace – while unions often have difficulty gaining access to workers. And while it is technically illegal to threaten or fire workers who take part in an organizing campaign, employers receive minimal penalties for doing so.
Cases from employment offices can drag on for years, after which an employer often only has to publish a notice in which he promises to comply with labor law in the future, said Wilma B. Liebman, a former CEO. There are no fines for such violations, although workers can be paid in full through rebate.
The PRO Act would prohibit mandatory anti-union meetings, impose fines for threatening or dismissing workers, and help unjustly dismissed workers get quick reinstatement. This would also give unions leverage by allowing them to participate in secondary boycotts – for example, asking customers to boycott restaurants that buy food from a bakery they want to unionise.
Glenn Spencer, senior vice president at the US Chamber of Commerce, criticized the bill as “radically recasting labor law” and said the provision on secondary boycotts could be extremely disruptive to its goals.
“These companies have nothing to do with the nature of the labor dispute, but they suddenly got caught up in it,” said Spencer.
However, despite the legal protection provided in the PRO Act, it will be difficult for unions to improve coverage on a large scale, say many experts. Labor law often effectively requires workers to win union elections one job at a time, which at Amazon alone can mean hundreds of separate elections.
The system is “optimized to build weak labor movements,” said David Rolf, former vice president of the Service Employees International Union, who favors industry-wide unions and negotiations.
And the PRO Act’s chances of going into effect are slim as long as opponents fall back on the Senate filibuster, which effectively needs 60 votes to pass laws.
Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, appeared before the AFL-CIO’s Executive Board this month to advocate exempting certain types of laws from filibusters. In a post-meeting statement, councilors called for “quick and necessary changes” to Senate rules to remove the filibuster as an obstacle to progressive legislation.
Mr Biden has since indicated that he is ready to weaken the filibuster, although it is not clear whether the PRO Act would benefit from it.
Mr Trumka said he was confident that Mr Biden would seize the opportunity that Mr Obama missed when the Democrats had a large Senate majority but still did not change labor law. “This president understands the power to resolve inequalities through collective bargaining,” said Trumka.
Others, however, are skeptical that despite all of his openness, Mr Biden will be able to deliver on behalf of the unions.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. “We know where his heart is. That doesn’t mean anything will change. “