As Richard Trumka stepped out of the Oval Office last month after meeting with President Biden and a group of his fellow labor leaders, he had an unfamiliar feeling.
“He got it,” Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said of Biden.
“Many times you go into meetings like that and you have to start with the basics about why collective bargaining is important, and then you get to the end, and they still really don’t get it,” Trumka, whose organization represents the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, said in a phone interview today. “None of that was necessary with him. He already had that going in. So we talked about solutions.”
As the Biden administration kicks into gear, it is putting organized labor at the heart of its push to rebuild the economy to a greater degree than any president — Democrat or Republican — in well over half a century.
The administration has indicated that a sweeping infrastructure bill is likely to be its next major focus, after Biden signs the $1.9 trillion relief package that appears on its way to passage in Congress. The president has repeatedly said that “good-paying union jobs” will be at the core of his infrastructure plan, a commitment that he reiterated during his meeting with labor leaders last month. He has also thrown his support behind the PRO Act, which would represent the most comprehensive piece of federal labor reform in a century.
And last week Biden turned heads when he released a short video announcing his support for Amazon workers’ push to unionize in Bessemer, Ala. He did not name Amazon, but he expressed support for “workers in Alabama,” and insisted that the right to unionize was essential to a healthy work force throughout the country.
“That’s something very new: No president since Harry Truman has made a statement as forcefully in favor of unions,” Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview.
Biden “didn’t just say workers have a right to unionize — he went beyond that,” Reich said. “He reiterated that the National Labor Relations Act puts responsibilities on employers not to interfere in an election, not to intimidate, and he went through a list of employer responsibilities. And that really struck a new note.”
Certainly the Biden administration is facing headwinds as it pushes against longstanding trends. Labor union membership has eroded across the country since the middle of the 20th century, when one-third of the private-sector work force was unionized. Nowadays, that number is well below one in 10. And even within Biden’s administration, there are officials with close ties to corporate interests who have a history of fighting to keep organized labor out of emerging industrial sectors as Big Tech revolutionizes the job market.
But labor leaders and workers’ advocates are already finding themselves startled by the groundwork Biden has laid.
During the Democratic primary campaign, labor rights became one area in which Biden, a relative centrist, was basically aligned with his left-wing challengers, like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Biden has long cast himself as a defender of labor rights, and union leaders are confident that he will make a meaningful break from presidents past. “That’s his history,” Trumka said. “Forty-some years I’ve known him, that’s how he’s been every one of those years.”
Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, agreed. “President Biden has been crystal clear about his belief that every worker has the right to join a union, from the earliest days of his campaign as president, and also as vice president, and as a senator before that,” she said.
Today, the environment for a pro-labor push appears more favorable than at any point in recent memory. A Gallup survey last year found that 65 percent of Americans expressed general approval of unions, the highest level of support in 17 years and far better than the 48 percent who expressed approval in 2009 amid the Great Recession.
Last year, the Business Roundtable, a group of top executives, released a mission statement that sought to redefine “the purpose of a corporation,” stipulating that it must “deliver value to all” of a company’s stakeholders, and not just investors, “for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”
But at the same time, President Donald Trump’s administration rolled back many worker protections and loosened enforcement of existing regulations through the National Labor Relations Board. Under Trump, that agency’s lead lawyer, Peter Robb, had made it harder for private-sector workers to unionize, in industries including fast food and health care. Biden sacked Robb on Day 1 of his presidency.
“President Biden sent a very strong and aggressive signal that he stands with workers when he fired Peter Robb,” Henry said. “This president is not playing.”
The change of tone has taken hold throughout the makeup of the Biden administration, Reich said, including in the Treasury Department. “Wall Street really did have, in both the Obama and also Clinton administrations, its own ambassador in the Treasury secretary, or in other high-level economic advisers,” he said. “That’s not the case this time around.”
Those dynamics have played out in the Covid-19 relief package. If passed, it will be the first major coronavirus-related bill “that did not include a bailout or any kind of subsidy for big corporations,” Reich said.
One thing the bill does not include is a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a top priority for organized labor that was dropped from the original bill after the Senate parliamentarian ruled it shouldn’t be included in legislation passed through the process of budgetary reconciliation.
The White House could have overruled the parliamentarian, but without unified support from Senate Democrats, Biden’s administration decided to let it go without a major fight.
“He didn’t really want to spend any political capital on the minimum wage,” Reich said.
And there are, of course, still close ties between corporate industry and Democratic Party politics. Some labor advocates were left grumbling after reports emerged last week that Biden had quietly hired Seth Harris, a veteran of the Obama administration, as his deputy assistant for labor and the economy.
After serving as deputy secretary of labor, Harris went to work for Dentons, a corporate law firm that has represented employers such as Walmart in labor disputes. In 2015, Harris co-wrote a study that proposed classifying gig-economy workers in a category of their own, effectively denying them many protections reserved for full-time workers.
That study has become a key resource in efforts by major tech companies to prevent gig-economy workers from unionizing. The most prominent recent example was in California, where the industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a successful campaign to pass Proposition 22, which classified Uber and Lyft drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.
The argument put forth by that campaign “is exceedingly dangerous, not just for labor but for the 120 years of labor protections we have built up, and that will basically cease to exist if everyone becomes a contract worker,” Reich said.
But observers say that it’s clear Biden intends to expand access to union organizing, including in sectors that have historically been prevented from collectively bargaining. Henry, whose union represents health care workers, said that the president had put labor rights at the center of his proposal to support home care and other health care workers who have been written out of federal labor protections going back to the New Deal era.
“I think the caregiving plan is the best evidence that this president and Vice President Kamala Harris are committed to supporting the current work force with the right to come together as a union,” she said.
“Home care is the fastest-growing job because of the aging of our population,” Henry added. “So that’s why we see his investment of $450 billion in the caregiving infrastructure of the nation, joined with the green infrastructure and manufacturing that he proposes in Build Back Better, as a huge signal.”
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