Joe Biden vows to be “the most pro-union president you’ll ever meet.” Over the past two years, labor leaders have often praised him for delivering on that promise.
They cited appointees who expressed sympathy for unions and various pro-labor measures, such as a pandemic relief bill that included tens of billions of dollars to bolster union pension funds.
But in recent weeks, after Biden helped railroad workers sign a contract that was rejected by four unions, in part because the contract did not include paid sick leave, many labor activists and academics have begun to question: What exactly is the president’s approval rating?
For those reassessing Biden, the concern is that the president, by asking Congress to intervene and avoid a strike, is missing a rare opportunity to boost workers’ bargaining power, with implications that could extend beyond the railroad sector.
“It’s not a question of whether this group of workers somehow gets sick leave,” said Kim Phillips-Fine, a historian of labor at Columbia University. “It is: What can people demand and expect to win through collective action?”
She added that Biden’s failure to take a tougher stance “shows political blindness to what’s really at stake.”
Essentially, the rail incident has sparked a debate about what it means to be a pro-Labour president.
Defenders see Biden as unusually outspoken on behalf of workers’ rights. They cite his statement during a unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama that there should be “no intimidation, coercion, threats” — an unusual but carefully worded gesture of presidential solidarity — as well as his Disappointment over Kellogg’s plans to permanently replace striking workers.
“He helped create an atmosphere across the country as it relates to unions that helped drive extraordinary organizing efforts,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union Warehouse and is challenging the outcome. Appelbaum added that Biden’s statements during the campaign “exceeded our expectations.”
The president’s supporters also point to a raft of labor-friendly regulations and legislation. Biden issued an executive order requiring so-called project labor agreements — agreements with unions that set wages and work rules — on federal construction projects worth more than $35 million. Key climate and health bills he signed Created incentives for clean energy projects to pay union-like rates.
Senior White House labor adviser Celeste Drake said in a statement that Biden had “made lasting progress for workers and unions” and that many of his achievements “passed narrowly in Congress, usually It’s the Republican vote, and the president’s advocacy of unions as a means of rebuilding the middle class, that could jeopardize everything.” (According to a recent Gallup poll, more than 70 percent of Americans support unions.)
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, who was the union’s second-in-command under Barack Obama’s presidency, said the Biden administration cared more about labor than the previous Democratic president, whom labor leaders sometimes criticized for supporting free-trade deals and controversial Changes in education policy.
“Labor is often an afterthought to the decisions made by the Obama administration,” Schuler said. “It’s the exact opposite of Biden. We were included at the table early, before a decision was made.”
Even the railroad labor issue, where Biden urged Congress to enact a contract that includes significant wage increases and improved health benefits, could end up being better for workers than another administration might, union officials said.
Another Biden argument made by many labor historians and activists is that while the president is actually more union-friendly and has better relations with union leaders than his most recent Democratic predecessor, the difference is one of degree, not kind .
Like his predecessors, they say, Biden has effectively sought to manage the long-term decline in the workforce in a relatively humane way — by making favorable appointments and enacting measures that favor the margins — but has yet to undertake a recovery. Various risk powers are given to workers.
Gabriel Winant, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, said Biden “gestures in some moments in an interesting way.” “But he doesn’t seem to have the guts to see through the gestures.”
For those who share this view, the railroad labor dispute is a powerful summary of Biden’s approach: In this case, the government worked closely with many leaders of the dozen or so unions representing railroad workers, but irritated some rank-and-file workers . Members of four unions voted down a deal the government helped broker, but were not allowed to strike for a better deal.
Administration officials said that while Biden strongly supports the right to strike, the potential cost to the economy, which the industry says could exceed $2 billion a day, is too high to keep railroad workers on strike. They noted that strikes could also pose health and safety risks — for example, by stopping deliveries of chemicals that ensure clean drinking water.
But to critics, those risks are key in a sense: They offer workers rare moments of leverage. They said Biden could have simply refused to sign any legislation that did not include paid sick leave, and then made it clear that if they refused, railroad operators were responsible for any disruptions.
“Biden made it clear that I’m your friend in this situation, but I’m not going to take any risks for you,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a historian at Georgetown University who has written extensively on transportation labor disputes. article.
If taking a stronger stance on behalf of railroad workers is high risk, it’s also high reward, McCartin said: Because transportation infrastructure touches nearly every part of the country, labor relations in the sector tend to have broad repercussions.
“Everybody saw it, everybody watched, everybody was affected,” he said. Last month, McCartin and more than 400 other academics signed an open letter to Biden saying federal intervention in transportation labor disputes “could set the tone for an entire era.”
The letter cites the government’s move to give railroad workers an eight-hour workday to avoid strikes during World War I, paving the way for similar benefits to other workers in the 1930s. By contrast, the letter said, President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in the early 1980s, which had weakened workers’ influence throughout the economy over the past few decades.
The critics’ argument is that by effectively disenfranchising railroad workers’ right to strike, Biden is making it harder for other workers to use the tool — and ultimately reversing the movement’s long-term decline.
A strike with strong support from union members “is the only way to win a standards-setting contract, and winning a standards-setting contract is the only way to rebuild the labor movement,” said Jane McAlevey, an academic and longtime organizer. Her forthcoming book, Winning Laws: Power and Participation in Union Bargaining, documents the importance of affirmative labor action in improving wages and working conditions.
Workers and organizers on the front lines of recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks and Amazon say they worry that Biden’s intervention in the railroad labor dispute sends a message to employers that the federal government won’t punish them for anti-union behavior.
“Everyone understands the importance of the president’s involvement,” said Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon union, which won election in April to represent workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York City. “It’s contradictory to claim you’re the most pro-union president in history and to do something like this.” (Amazon challenged union victory.)
In some quarters, labor activists expect Biden to present himself as a centrist Democrat for most of his career, and it may be unrealistic that he would depart from the basic patterns of labor relations that have long prevailed in his party.
But during the presidential campaign, Biden and some of his top advisers discussed the ways in which they hoped to disrupt Washington’s longstanding economic orthodoxy that emphasizes free markets and a small role for government.
Those who support populist policies say Biden has achieved results on some fronts: subsidizing domestic manufacturing, restricting trade with China and appointing regulators who often go to court to block major mergers.
“Clearly progress has been made,” said Oren Kass, a former Republican policy aide and founder of Compass America, a group that aims to make conservatism more pro-worker.
When it comes to labor, however, some say Biden is less willing to rethink the dominant economic model.
“If Biden intervenes in a way that is more favorable and sympathetic to the railroad workers, that would be a sign of him really breaking out of that mold, which itself no longer seems to fit the moment,” Phillips said. Fein, Columbia historian. “That it didn’t happen shows the limits of his political imagination.”
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