Biden's vow to be ‘most pro-union president' tested in first year

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Biden’s rhetoric didn’t create the current shift in public perception of workers’ rights and unions, but it is part of the mix of forces creating a clear opportunity for labor.

The start of President Joe Biden’s second year in office comes with new opportunities to deliver on his commitment to be pro-labor. Despite some success and strong support, he was unable to deliver on some key worker legislation in his first year. 

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Biden has often said he wants to be the most pro-labor president. He reiterated the pledge in September, saying: “In my White House, you’ll always be welcome. You’ll always be welcome. Labor will always be welcome. You know, you’ve heard me say many times: I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”

Biden’s first year coincided with fervent national unrest among workers in industries from entertainment to health care and manufacturing as the country continued to grapple with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Many low-wage workers suffered greatly during the pandemic but found success by collectively leveraging their position and publicly challenging their employers and workplace conditions.

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“I don’t think you can underestimate the power the White House has in supporting labor,” said Ariel Avgar, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Biden is sending a strong signal that support for labor is a good thing, which comes at this moment where there’s this shift in public perception of workers’ rights and unions. Biden’s rhetoric didn’t cause this — but it’s part of the mixture of forces that are happening to create a clear opportunity for labor.”

Karla Walter, the senior director of employment policy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, said successful worker unrest tends to beget further activism, and she said Biden’s support may have had a similar impact. 

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This isn’t about ‘What’s the one thing I can do for labor?’ This is a true commitment of making sure government is on the side of working people.

KARLA WALKER, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS

“I think that having a president who really demonstrates in all that he says that working people have a right to be treated with dignity and that that’s what government should stand for has got to make people feel that there’s more opportunity to ask for fair treatment,” Walter said. “This isn’t about ‘What’s the one thing I can do for labor?’ This is a true commitment of making sure government is on the side of working people.”

During his first year, Biden scored key wins with the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure law, both of which were championed by unions. The former provided essential federal relief that aided public-sector employees. It also included initiatives like the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act, which ensures funding for more than 200 multi-employer pension plans and guarantees retirees 100 percent of their earned benefits. The latter will create about 2 million jobs a year for 10 years and ensure fair wages, Biden said.  

Biden’s efforts to help workers affected by the pandemic included increasing production of personal protective equipment, issuing stimulus checks and tax credits, expanding unemployment benefits, preventing furloughs and funding industries such as tourism, airline and rail.

When Biden took office in January 2021, the unemployment rate was 6.4 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In December, near the end of his first year, it was 3.9 percent. In the same period, the number of employed people rose from 150 million to 156 million and workplace participation increased from 61.4 percent to 61.9 percent.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a labor union that represents about 1.3 million public- and private-sector workers, credits the Biden administration with saving pensions, encouraging unions and creating and protecting union jobs.

“This past year has been a time of real progress for Teamsters and working Americans,” the union said in a release, adding that “the Biden White House leveled the playing field for workers by appointing officials like fellow union member Marty Walsh to U.S. Labor Secretary and new members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) who would stand up for their interests.”

Biden created the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment to protect and promote employees’ rights, and he has also worked to undo rollbacks of worker protections during the Trump era. But Walters said he has taken it a step further. 

“There’s a real goal and effort of ‘We’re not just undoing what Trump did or restoring things to the Obama administration level; we’re going beyond that,’” Walters said. “It’s ‘We’re trying to ensure the government has working people’s backs.’”

However, Biden’s pro-labor stance also faced serious congressional setbacks in his first year. 

A major piece of legislation, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, has failed to move in the Senate after it passed in the House. The bill would expand protections for workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. It would also impose harsher penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights. It was included in Biden’s initial Build Back Better plan, which has also failed to pass the Senate. 

The Build Back Better plan, a top legislative goal of the administration, would have provided billions of dollars in additional funding for the Labor Department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board. It also would have bolstered Biden’s efforts to strengthen the enforcement of federal labor and employment laws.  

Biden was also unable to include his standard of a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the American Rescue Plan. 

 Still, union leaders and labor experts are bullish on Biden’s accomplishments. 

“President Biden has been as advertised,” said Tim Schlittner, the communications director for the AFL-CIO. “We feel we have a champion in the White House. It steels our spines. The confluence of worker activism and President Biden’s election has created an incredible opportunity for real change, for workers to finally have a say in our wages, our working conditions, our retirement, our quality of life.”

However, the accomplishments of his first year aren’t enough to cement his legacy, advocates say. As he enters his second year, Biden’s commitment to his pledge will continue to face challenges. 

“The rhetoric has been tremendously strong,” said Avgar, of Cornell. “But if at the end of his term there’s strong rhetoric without legislation that fundamentally shifts existing labor law for organizing, then it’s going to be difficult to say his goal of being the most pro-labor president has come to fruition.”

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