Joe Biden Will Not Save the Labor Movement

Talk of Joe Biden as a transformational president is getting ahead of itself. Historically, labor law reform has triggered some of the fiercest battles from business — and Joe Biden has shown no evidence he’ll go to the mat for the PRO Act, the most transformative piece of labor legislation in decades.

Joe Biden speaking with attendees at the Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO in Altoona, Iowa, 2019. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Joe Biden was not, to put it mildly, the first choice of labor movement progressives in the 2020 Democratic primary. He brought a thirty-year record of supporting anti-worker policies, advocating cuts to Social Security, and pandering to the Right. But times change, and things that were out of reach a few decades ago are at least on the agenda for labor.

This can be seen most clearly with the PRO Act, a laundry list of reforms that recently passed the House. The legislation would roll back decades-old restrictions on unions, eliminate “right to work” provisions, and penalize corporations who violate labor law. It’s the real deal, at least on paper. Now many unions and activists are gearing up to fight for the PRO Act, seeing in it the key to reviving organized labor.

Even if the legislation (which Biden says he supports) does not pass, proposing meaningful reform at least gets the discussion going. Labor law needs a complete overhaul, so there’s no sense in tinkering around the edges.

Yet we also need to be clear that labor law reform battles have been the biggest fights in US history. Unions tried to amend the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in the 1950s and ’60s when they were far stronger than today. The most recent attempts at reform — under the Democratic administrations of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama— sought comparatively minor changes and got nowhere. Although labor leaders claim they will hold Biden’s feet to the fire, we have heard that song before with the Obama administration, before that with Clinton, and before that with Carter.

Sometimes what matters is not our opinions but those of our enemies, and the notoriously anti-union Chamber of Commerce appears unruffled by the Biden administration. There are few signs of either side gearing up for a major legislative battle, as one would expect if the biggest change to labor law since Taft-Hartley was seriously on the table.

Amid much liberal triumphalism, it is important for labor activists to maintain a balanced approach to the possibilities and limits of Biden’s administration. With only six out of one hundred private sector workers belonging to unions — the result of a decades-long attack on workers’ rights — labor unions will need fundamental change to revive their fortunes.

Assessing Biden

Biden has taken some pro-union steps in the early weeks of his administration.

Within hours of assuming office, Biden fired the notorious union-busting attorney Peter Robb, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. Robb’s list of anti-union actions include underfunding the NLRB, changing board procedures to disadvantage labor, and prioritizing cases against unions. The NLRB has long been toothless, and Robb aggressively pushed it to be even more toothless.

Still, Robb was fairly brazen in his union-busting, fitting within the Trump administration’s take-no-prisoners approach. Not bound by niceties like pretending to be neutral, he was an outlier even for a reactionary board. So firing Robb in and of itself was not a radical act.

How about Biden’s recent video about the Amazon union vote in Bessemer, Alabama?

After years of inaction by Democratic administrations, it was a welcome change to see any show of support for workers amid an organizing campaign — especially one of this magnitude. But Amazon is one of Biden’s major campaign donors, and it is clear Biden chose his words carefully. His statement simply called for a fair election, so workers could vote without fear of reprisal.

Most recently, Biden signed an economic stimulus package that features important protections for unions. Public employees pushed for funding for state governments hit hard by the COVID crisis. Teamsters and other unions finally won relief for multi-employer benefits. Airline unions won a continuation of the payroll support program, protecting against furloughs in this hard-hit industry. Other pro-worker provisions included an expanded child tax credit and unemployment insurance.

We should appreciate that unlike the Trump packages, this relief package was targeted to meet important union concerns. But we also need to keep in mind that it was similar in size to the Trump programs and would not have happened save for the crisis and capital’s declining deficit-phobia.

The point isn’t to reflexively criticize Biden, but to simply suggest that he is what he is. He is not going to save the labor movement, even if he will be light-years better than Trump. Bernie Sanders did not win the primary. The establishment did. We should not expect the result to be radical labor measures, but instead a rejection of Trumpism and a return to the labor policies of past Democratic administrations.

While there are differences between Democrats and Republicans on labor policy, they tend to be on the margins and not on fundamental questions. For example, the Democrats may support gig workers’ organizing rights, quicker timelines for union elections, and allowing workers to use company emails. But although these distinctions matter — particularly when backed up by more pro-worker NLRB appointees — they don’t matter enough to revive labor.

Union membership has consistently fallen through both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.

How to Revive Labor

We are in a period where many capitalists have lined up behind Biden — he received more money from billionaires than Trump in the general election — and a global pandemic necessitated an enormous outlay of social spending. But this moment will end, probably sooner than we think, and a day of reckoning is coming.

On the political front, we should expect Republicans and centrist Democrats to use deficits as an excuse to attack social programs. On the bargaining front, we should anticipate sharp class struggle in the coming years as corporations attempt to rebuild capital reserves on the backs of workers.

In such times, it is important to remain grounded in our principles. The liberal view of the world puts workers and management in conflict and the government as a neutral force that sometimes supports the rich and sometimes supports workers. But we know that is not true. The government’s primary role in society is to enforce these property rights, the very basis of workplace exploitation. While labor creates the wealth, a handful pockets the social surplus — meaning misery for many and untold wealth for a few.

Now, some may say, we are holding Biden to too high a standard. But that is exactly the point.

For the last several decades, we have attempted to reinvigorate the labor movement within the confines of a system set up for us to fail. The moments we have shined is when workers, largely independent of the established union bureaucracy, have risen up and broken beyond the restrains of labor law.

The Wisconsin Uprising, which just hit its ten-year anniversary, brought tens of thousands of workers to surround and occupy the state capital. The great teacher rebellion of recent years used often-illegal strikes to resist austerity. When the labor movement does come back to life, it will be through this kind of worker activity that pushes beyond the existing system.

We must welcome every concession from the billionaire class, including those fought for or won in the early years of the Biden administration. But to revive the labor movement, we need to redouble our efforts to build a militant reform-minded section of the labor movement.

A return to failed mainstream Democratic Party labor policies will not revive unions. We need a labor revolution.