President Biden, who has a stronger union background than any incoming president for decades, has promised to adopt a strong pro-worker agenda, and he has already assembled a labor-focused economic team. Senior advisors, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellin, and head of the Council of Economic Advisors, Cecilia Rouse, are leading experts on increasing worker earnings, reducing income inequality, and eradicating racial and gender discrimination. Biden’s Secretary of Labor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, has a background in organized labor, a history of supporting union causes, and a close personal relationship with the president, which will assist him elevate the importance of labor issues in cabinet deliberations. Walsh should be considered a key member of Biden’s team and an important voice on matters of central economic policy. Labor advocates have also welcomed other Biden cabinet nominees, such as Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, and Health and Human Services Secretary, Xavier Bacerra.
President Biden will immediately face huge challenges controlling the coronavirus, rolling out the vaccination program, and enacting a stimulus package to rebuild the economy. But the new administration also faces major challenges on the labor front. Below are five issues that the new Biden Administration should prioritize:
- Use the Bully Pulpit of the Presidency to Promote Unions and Collective Bargaining
The U.S. President has the loudest megaphone in the world, as we have seen in the past few months, often with tragic consequences. But previous presidents have used the bully pulpit of the office in positive ways. Most students of New Deal labor history recall, perhaps above all else, that FDR said, “If I were a factory worker, I would join a union,” and the CIO told mass production workers, “the president wants you to join a union.” Like FDR, President Biden can use the megaphone to send a clear message that unions are good for workers, good for the economy and good for America. They can be a powerful force for reducing skyrocketing levels of inequality, promoting racial justice and gender equality, advancing a green economy and tackling climate change, and strengthening the institutions of U.S. democracy.
President Biden must state unambiguously that America now faces a stark choice: either we can have an economy in which a growing number of Americans work in low-wage, dead-end jobs and in the gig economy, uncertain if they will have sufficient income from one week to the next; or, we have an economy in which millions of American can once again enjoy the security of a middle-class income, healthcare and pension benefits, and expect greater economic opportunities for their children. If we want the latter, we must have stronger unions and more robust collective bargaining coverage. There simply is no other way.
- Support the Pro Act and Strengthen the Right to Choose a Union
Legal protection for the right to form a union is weaker in the U.S. than in any other advanced democracy, but passing labor law reform in America is enormously difficult. The experience with the Employee Free Choice Act during the Obama Administration demonstrated that corporations will do anything to defeat legislation that enhances workers’ right to choose a union. But the Biden administration must approach the issue with a renewed sense of urgency. Only 6.2% of the private sector workers are unionized, even though reputable studies have demonstrated that a majority of American workers would support a union, if given a free and fair choice. The House of Representatives has already passed the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would strengthen workers’ rights to choose a union free from employer interference. President Biden should speak in favor of the PRO Act, explain why it is essential to his agenda to restore the middle class and promote economic and racial justice, and ensure that passing it is a key priority for his Administration.
- Promote a Pro-Worker Agenda at the NLRB
Under chairman, John Ring, and general counsel, Peter Robb, the Trump National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) has promoted the most anti-union agenda since the Donald Dotson NLRB of the 1980s. Dominated by union-busting lawyers, the Trump NLRB has sided with powerful corporations over ordinary workers at every opportunity. It has introduced changes that have allowed employers to delay the NLRB election process, enabled powerful corporations to evade responsibility for unlawful actions committed by their franchisees, and made it more difficult for employees to communicate with one another, hear from unions or benefit from employer neutrality. It will take months to install a Democratic majority – though GC Robb could be replaced more quickly — but the Biden NLRB must act boldly when reversing the anti-worker decisions of the Trump labor board and strengthening the right to choose a union, which has been seriously eroded over the past four years.
- Breathing New Life Into the Department of Labor
Under arch-conservative Secretary of Labor, Eugene Scalia, the Trump Labor Department has taken a wrecking-ball to long-standing workplace protections. Perhaps most egregiously, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has allowed corporations to decide for themselves what constitute adequate safety precautions to protect workers from the virus, rather than require that corporations enforce CDC guidelines on social distancing, masking and informing employees about workplace infections. President Biden will immediately enact an emergency national rule on Covid-19 workplace safety, and under Secretary Walsh, federal OSHA will enforce that new rule.
Among other tasks, Walsh – who has a powerful record of promoting workplace safety as Mayor of Boston – must revive the Wage & Hour Division, oversee state administration of unemployment benefits, tackle the disproportionate impact of the pandemic recession on communities of color, and reinvigorate job skills and workplace inclusion training programs. He will need to replace political operatives installed by the Trump Administration with real labor relations experts. California’s Secretary for Labor and Workforce Development, Julie Su, would be an ideal Deputy Secretary. Walsh’s background is in organized labor; Su’s is in low-wage work, worker centers, and immigrant workers. Together, they could demonstrate powerfully the Biden Administration’s desire to protect the interests of all workers.
- Support Workers’ Rights at High-Profile Anti-Union Companies like Amazon, Google and Uber
The Biden administration will soon have opportunities to demonstrate it supports labor rights and workplace fairness. On February 8th, almost 6000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama will vote on joining the RWDSU-UFCW, thereby becoming the nation’s first union members at the e-commerce behemoth. With the assistance of anti-union law firm Morgan Lewis, Amazon is running an aggressive anti-union campaign, with anti-union websites, workplace posters and texts messages. Formed earlier this month, the Alphabet Workers Union at Google, a company which has previously spied on and fired pro-union workers, now represents close to 1000 workers. Strong rhetorical support from the Biden Administration would boost these critical union organizing campaigns.
The Biden Administration must also promote enhanced rights for gig workers. By spending billions on lobbying, corporations have effectively written our labor laws for decades, but this process is usually sub rosa. With California’s anti-gig worker Prop. 22 — which platform corporations bought with a $200 million campaign – the evisceration of labor rights was out in the open. The Biden Labor Department and NLRB can help rein in this widespread misclassification of employees as independent contractors by corporations seeking to offload their legal and economic obligations.
But imagine the potential boost to high-profile labor campaigns such as these if the new President were to say, “If I were an Amazon warehouse worker, a Google engineer, or an Uber driver, I would join a union.”
Along with the worst public health crisis in a century, the incoming Biden Administration faces the most challenging economy of the past several decades. The president also faces enormous labor challenges. But there’s reason for labor advocates to be cautiously optimistic. The early signs are all positive.
John Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.