Labor Has a Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity. Now Is Not the Time for Moderation.

In his first 100 days as president, Joe Biden has proven unusually willing to associate his administration with the labor movement's agenda. Unions have a greater opening to win an expansive pro-worker agenda than they have in decades. But we haven't seen real change yet.

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House speaker Nancy Pelosi on the dais behind him, on April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Melina Mara / Pool-Getty Images)

On his first day in office, Joe Biden fired Peter Robb, the awful former management-side attorney who was general counsel on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Since then, Biden has shored up union pension plans in his pandemic relief bill and released a video opposing Amazon’s union-busting in Bessemer, Alabama — even if he avoided calling out the company by name. One hundred days into his presidency, it’s clear that Biden is willing to work with organized labor, at least so far as its priorities concern conditions on the shop floor.

“These first hundred days are incomparable to any other in my lifetime, and workers have been central to Biden’s response,” says Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America (AFA-CWA) president Sara Nelson. In addition to Biden firing Robb and opposing union-busting, she lists the following as evidence: “Mask mandates and enforcement, COVID-19 relief, reinstating union rights for federal employees, prioritizing key labor nominations and appointments including the latest this week with Celeste Drake to serve as the Made in America director, mandating a $15 minimum wage for federal contract work, and having his cabinet form a pro-union task force that will require his administration make unions central to their consideration and decision-making.”

The $15 minimum wage for federal contract work Nelson refers to comes via an executive order issued this week. It offers a major pay bump for the workers whose minimum wage currently sits at $10.95 — the Economic Policy Institute estimates it will impact 390,000 federal workers.

The pro-union task force, charged with “worker organizing and empowerment,” was also announced this week and will be led by Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris is no hero of labor, but the text of the order creating the task force says that “the policy of the United States is to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining and to promote equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” That’s just a description of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, but it is a departure for the White House to state it so plainly.

The task force will issue recommendations on how the government can use its authority to make it easier to organize. This will likely include encouraging employers who contract with the federal government to adopt some sort of neutrality toward collective bargaining. Hopefully, the task force will affirm the priority of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a labor law reform bill that Biden supports — in a job-centric speech last night, he told Congress to pass the legislation — and which, given capital’s opposition to the bill, needs to be pushed at every opportunity.

Another big change from the Trump presidency was Biden’s executive order directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to consider issuing an emergency standard. OSHA never issued such a standard under Trump; the agency was effectively MIA throughout the pandemic, leaving workers to die. The labor world applauded Biden’s January executive order, but his March 15 deadline for OSHA came and went with no updates.

After murmurs about such silence got louder, OSHA announced this week that it has sent an emergency temporary standard to the Office of Management and Budget. The agency says thoughtfulness about the standard caused the delay, though opposition by business groups to emergency standards might have had something to do with it — the National Retail Federation, for example, is firmly opposed.

These are important developments, part of a shift by liberals both in elected office and in the business community away from ultra-austerity and deficit-hawkishness in favor of fiscal expansion. This change in perspective shouldn’t be misdiagnosed or overstated; for instance, the business class still opposes the PRO Act, and they will move heaven and earth to stop the bill if its odds of passing into law improve. But there are opportunities here for workers.

“It’s our job to use this moment and build on this momentum to pass the PRO Act, restore voting rights, organize in the millions, reverse inequality, fight for equity, achieve health care for all, save our planet with good union jobs, and ensure our democracy thrives,” says Nelson.

Union organizer and author Jane McAlevey echoes that sentiment.

“Whether it is FDR or Biden, the issue is what are unions and the organized working class doing to help create the possibility to achieve Biden’s stated goals of increasing unionization and decreasing misery and inequality?” asks McAlevey. Pointing to 1933–34 as a parallel to the present, she notes that in the earlier era, “there were massive strikes in key labor markets across the country that helped advance the agenda over the objection of the big-business elite.” Applauding Biden’s pro-labor moves, she says that “there isn’t the pressure from below being generated yet that can force the PRO Act or a broader working-class agenda — which is what is desperately needed to go from misery to justice.”

If the Biden administration won’t fight union organizing, now is the time to advance the line, gaining back ground lost during decades of anti-union warfare and pushing an agenda that meets twenty-first-century needs.

The Limits of Bidenism

No assessment of the Biden presidency’s record for workers is complete without considering the limits of organized labor’s priorities — limits that, to a large extent, reflect the strategic predicament of a movement mired in weakness. Police brutality, for instance, is a pressing working-class issue, one on which Biden remains intransigent and defensive; organized labor, for its part, has yet to adequately prioritize the problem either. And then there is the relegation of the needs of workers abroad to an afterthought.

In India, there are now more than 350,000 new coronavirus cases per day — a number experts say may be a “vast undercount.” Hospitalizations are ticking back up in parts of the United States too, but we have vaccines. Not so in India. Although the country started vaccinating people in January and says it has administered 141 million doses — putting it third in absolute number of doses administered, behind the United States and China — that puts it lower per capita than many other countries.

The Biden administration’s role in the crisis is significant. India’s vaccine manufacturers have urged the United States to lift the ban on the export of raw materials needed for the production of vaccines. When the State Department was asked about this last week, its spokesperson said that “the United States first and foremost is engaged in an ambitious and effective and, so far, successful effort to vaccinate the American people.”

America first. The backlash to this answer was enough for the administration to change course within days. They now say “specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine will immediately be made available for India.” (“Covishield” is the brand name for AstraZeneca’s vaccine; no word on whether Biden will also send the millions of AstraZeneca doses we have sitting around.) It’s a good move, but one that should’ve already been made.

Next, we must waive TRIPS (that’s the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement). The Trump administration blocked a waiver of the World Trade Organization agreement, and Biden has yet to change course. Countries, including India, have been begging for this emergency waiver since last year. The United States isn’t the only country blocking the measure, but it’s a major obstacle. A proposal for a waiver cosponsored by fifty-seven countries failed to overcome rich countries’ objections at a WTO meeting last month. As Law 360 reports, “Representatives for the U.S. welcomed further engagement with the proposal’s sponsors, according to the trade official, but wished the countries would bear in mind the importance of incentives for innovation.” That’s pleasing news for the US Chamber of Commerce, which calls the proposal a “distraction.”

The stymying of vaccine production and distribution abroad by the United States bears on Biden’s presidential record with respect to workers. To Biden’s credit, also relevant are his officials announcing that their decision to pull troops from Afghanistan by September is not “conditions-based” (what US troop removal will actually mean for Afghanistan’s residents remains to be seen). Less positive is the lack of movement on his promise to end US support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen, the administration’s aggressive posture toward China and Russia, and statements like this one about Bolivia from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Biden’s administration is far less hostile to the US working class than was that of Barack Obama, or any number of predecessors either Democrat or Republican. But it is still imperial liberalism: too narrow at home, too hostile to human life abroad.