Biden stakes claim to being America’s most pro-union president ever

<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Just over 100 days into his presidency Joe Biden is showing that he is one of the most pro-union presidents in American history, declaring the “unions built the middle class” in his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

Union membership has declined precipitously in the US and accounted for about 10.8% of US employees last year, just over half the rate in 1983. Unions have also suffered notable setbacks in recent years, mostly recently failing to get the votes to unionize at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

Related: What can Biden do to reverse Trump's assault on labor rights?

None of this has dampened Biden’s ardor for organized labor, or Republican opposition to it.

Last Monday, Biden issued an executive order establishing the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, a move that aims to help unions expand their ranks. On Tuesday, Biden named Celeste Drake, to head his new “Made in America” program, which is designed to steer more federal money to US manufacturers. Drake is longtime trade expert at AFL-CIO, the US’s largest union federation.

Also last week, the White House issued a fact sheet saying that Biden’s proposed $2.3tn infrastructure plan would create many union jobs in construction, clean energy and other fields – by, for instance, requiring companies that receive money under the legislation not to oppose unionization efforts.

Biden’s new taskforce is seen as an important pro-union move – headed by Vice-President Kamala Harris, it includes most cabinet members and aims to have the entire executive branch promote unionizing and collective bargaining. In this way, Biden is undertaking an extraordinary effort to help reverse the decades-long decline in labor unions’ membership and power.

In announcing the taskforce, the White House said “the shrinking of America’s middle class [is] associated with the declining percentage of workers in unions”.

The taskforce, officials say, will recommend ways to use existing policies and programs to promote organizing and will also explore new policies to further that goal. “This is an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Jared Bernstein, a member of the president’s council of economic advisers, told the Guardian. “The marching order from the president is everything we do in the job market space needs to reflect the importance of unionization.”

One White House official noted that the percentage of federal workers in unions, 28%, is lower than the percentage of state and local government workers. He said the administration might seek to increase that percentage by communicating with federal employees on the advantages of joining unions.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois, called Biden’s creation of the new taskforce “a significant historical step”. “The idea of the White House using this as a platform – it seems every cabinet member is on the taskforce – is a pretty profound statement about the importance the Biden administration places on collective bargaining and organizing workers.”

A White House fact sheet seemed to acknowledge the complaints of many labor leaders who argue Democratic presidents have done too little to strengthen unions. “No previous administration has taken a comprehensive approach to determining how the executive branch can advance worker organizing and collective bargaining,” the fact sheet said.

During his first 100 days, Biden has acted repeatedly to promote unions. On his very first day, he fired the National Labor Relations Board’s anti-union general counsel. On 28 February, he issued a video that some historians say was the most pro-union statement ever by a sitting president, one that many saw as indirect support for the unsuccessful Amazon unionization drive. Biden has vigorously supported the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, (Pro Act), the most pro-union legislation to advance in Congress since the 1930s. The House approved it in March, but it faces a filibuster in the Senate. Among other things, the Pro Act would take away some of corporate America’s most effective tactics in fighting unionization and give state and local employees in all 50 states the right to unionize.

Biden gave his indirect support to the drive to unionize the Amazon warehouse at Bessemer, Alabama.
Biden gave his indirect support to the drive to unionize the Amazon warehouse at Bessemer, Alabama. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Biden has backed other legislation that labor strongly supports. He has pushed to lift the federal minimum wage to $15, and after a $15 minimum lacked the votes to pass the Senate, he issued an executive order on Tuesday setting a $15 minimum for federal contractors. Unions also applaud Biden’s efforts to create 12 weeks’ paid leave for new parents and workers who need to care for sick family members.

“Biden has a long record of being very pro-union. The challenge now is figuring out what he can do with Congress, what he can do without Congress and what he’s willing to do without Congress,” said Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers. “Supporting organized labor is a win-win for him. It builds on his electoral base. It addresses what he sees as the key problems ailing our country, not the least of which is economic inequality, and it builds broader support for Democrats up and down the ballot across the country.”

Some labor experts say Biden may prove to be even more pro-union than Franklin D Roosevelt, who signed landmark legislation creating a minimum wage and giving workers a federal protected right to unionize. Givan said that for Biden to be arguably as pro-labor as FDR, he will need to go beyond rhetoric and take some far-reaching pro-labor actions and enact some important pro-labor legislation.

Seth Harris, a White House labor adviser, told the Guardian: “In the past we’ve had very good-faith efforts by some presidents to do individual things, like executive order and regulatory actions [to help unions]. The question is, what about a whole-of-government approach? We never sit down and think about what it would be like if the whole government was organized around the principle that worker organizing was a good thing and not a bad thing.”

Biden appears eager to use multiple tools and tactics to promote unions, including his procurement powers, through $600bn in annual federal contracting. That power might be used to organize the lightly unionized clean energy industry, officials said.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden meet with labor leaders in the Oval Office of the White House, including Eric Dean, general president of the Ironworkers International Union, right, in February.
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden meet with labor leaders in the Oval Office of the White House, including Eric Dean, general president of the Ironworkers International Union, right, in February. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

“We know that about two-thirds of Americans approve of unions from a 2020 Gallup poll,” said Bernstein of the council of economic advisers. “We know that only 6% of private-sector workers are union members. There is a huge gap between the number of working Americans who want to be represented by unions and have collective bargaining and the number who are in unions. It could make a very big difference in this space to have a president who uses the bully pulpit to make this a front-and-center preference.”

None of this has sat well with Republicans. Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the House education and labor committee, criticized Biden for creating the new taskforce, saying that move “further solidified his cushy relationship with union bosses; the same people responsible for swindling workers’ hard-earned paychecks and pushing radical, unworkable policies that lead to lower economic growth”.

But for all his talk of bipartisanship, Biden seems keen to promote unions despite the potential blowback and is actively courting working Americans in his efforts. “Union workers earn roughly 13% more than non-union workers on a similar job site,” the White House said in a fact sheet. “They also experience drastically lower rates of labor standards violations,” like wage theft or safety violations. The fact sheet noted that 60% of the nation’s 16 million union members are women and/or people of color.

In an interview, a senior White House official said Biden was very concerned about the weakened state of worker power and sees unions as the best method of increasing it. “His framing of worker power and unionization has always been a matter of getting a fair shake at the bargaining table,” the official said. “He looks at the bargaining table and sees a woman of color in the healthcare sector and on the other side of the table, a bunch of people with a lot more power than she has, and that’s what he wants to balance out.”