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Newsletter | July 26, 2023

It’s Time For “Union Joe” To Prove Himself

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It’s Time For “Union Joe” To Prove Himself

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Hot Labor Summer is in full swing folks. The actors of SAG-AFTRA have joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on the picket line, bringing Hollywood to a near-complete stand still. The Teamsters just won a historic victory, utilizing the threat of a strike to win massive benefits for full and part-time workers. 26,000 American Airlines flight attendants have a strike vote starting this week. The United Auto Workers are prepared to strike in the fall if they don’t reach an agreement with the Big Three automakers. On top of these high profile disputes, workers across the country and economy are withholding their labor: nurses in TexasKansas, and New York; hotel workers in California; Amazon warehouse workers in Michigan. With that backdrop, President Biden has the opportunity to live up to his self-styled “Union Joe” moniker, winning over rank and file workers ahead of the 2024 election and setting up a unionized green energy sector that would pay dividends for years to come.

Thus far, however, Biden’s allyship with labor has been largely disappointing. Rhetorically, he has been outspoken in his support for organized labor, regularly reiterating his goal to be the most pro-labor president in US history. His appointments to key executive positions have also been encouraging — Jennifer Abruzzo to General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Julie Su to Labor Secretary at the Department of Labor. Unfortunately, the list of the administrations’ pro-labor achievements basically ends there. 

Personnel is of the utmost importance, but they can only be as successful as their agency budgets allow them to be. The NLRB has been perpetually underfunded, with a 24% cut in real terms since 2010. Prior to losing the House, Democrats had two opportunities to reverse a decade of neglect. They instead settled for measly increases that failed to make up for lost time. Now, with a split Congress, labor’s most important federal agency will be lucky to escape without another budget cut. Meanwhile, union elections are skyrocketing and unfair labor practice complaints are up. Abruzzo herself has been vocal about the agency’s lack of capacity to handle the increased workload, expressing an “urgent need for additional resources.” 

Union [Busting] Joe

On top of budgetary shortcomings, Biden has gone out of his way to repeatedly undermine organized labor at crucial junctures — the most notable of which came last November when he was faced with a potential rail strike. Rail workers threatened to withhold their labor, refusing to sign a contract that excluded four days of paid sick leave. Biden and Congress, however, imposed the agreement on the rail unions, citing the costs of a strike to the overall economy. Of course, the economic impact of a strike is precisely what gives a union leverage to win their demands. As we noted at the time, “if their demands are so modest that any decent employer would easily exceed them, then meeting their demands seems like the obvious solution.” Indeed, it was. But in the most important opportunity to prove his “Union Joe” bonafides, Biden opted for union-busting, doing the work of the railroad bosses that have screwed over rail workers for two centuries.

Since that momentous let down, Biden has continued to disappoint his (potential) labor allies. The United Auto Workers (UAW), who represent 146,000 employees with large concentrations in midwest swing states, have been vocal in their frustration with the lack of federal attentiveness to union concerns in the automaking sector. The administration has rightly appropriated billions of dollars to subsidize the upstart car battery industry in order to hasten their clean car goals. These loans, however, have come with no strings attached regarding labor standards, with $2.8 billion going to non-union plants in so-called right-to-work states. Again, this essentially amounts to union-busting. With UAW’s contract up in the fall, it’s also an existential threat to a unionized electric automaking industry. As UAW president Shawn Fain put it

“[The loan has] no consideration for wages, working conditions, union rights or retirement security […] Why is Joe Biden’s administration facilitating this corporate greed with taxpayer money? Not only is the federal government not using its power to turn the tide – they’re actively funding the race to the bottom with billions in public money.” 

As a self proclaimed ally of the working man, Union Joe should use the bully pulpit to demand these federal loans be contingent on hiring unionized workers. As the Democratic front runner for 2024, it’s political malpractice to do anything but align his administration with UAW demands. In 2016, the UAW leadership endorsed Clinton, but a large portion of the rank and file in the Rust Belt voted for Trump. With the slim margins for error in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, Biden can ill-afford to lose this constituency. Trump knows this, and is making a push to finally win the UAW’s endorsement. His main sticking point? What he calls the “ridiculous Green New Deal crusade” that will “slaughter” auto jobs. To be clear, this does not mean Biden should cave whatsoever in his pursuit of a fully electric auto industry and a greener economy more broadly. But he must not ignore the real concerns of traditional auto workers. Failing to do so will imperil Democratic electoral chances next fall. The only constituency that thinks otherwise is the corporate elite hoping to suppress the swell of worker power. 

Listen To Workers, Not Fear Mongers

Biden seemed to understand this in recent public speeches. In Philadelphia last week, Biden lauded the union jobs in emerging offshore wind farms, stating, “A lot of my friends in organized labor know, when I think climate, I think jobs. […] Union workers are the best in the world.” Hopefully this represents a shift in policy towards the EV industry because words will only take him so far. If it comes down to the US President’s word versus the UAW President’s word, I think the rank and file will vote in line with their union leader.

That brings us to the current situation regarding the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes and the potential American Airlines and UAW strikes. Thus far, labor leaders are urging the president not to intervene. It may seem like an odd request — after all, why would you not want the support of the most powerful man in the world — but the president would be wise to listen. During the last WGA strike in 2007, the Hollywood studios relied on consultants who previously worked for the Clinton White House to break the strike. Every union in the country undoubtedly recalls the bungling of the rail strike. There is likely little trust in the administration to act effectively, and any intervention with a primary aim of resolving the dispute, rather than winning union demands, is counterproductive. 

Furthermore, this could be part of the long term strike strategy. Union’s often escalate their campaigns over time to periodically increase pressure on the company, i.e starting with a one day walk out, then striking, then organizing a boycott. It’s impossible for outsiders to know their strategies, but it’s plausible that they plan on calling for federal support sometime down the line. If Biden intervenes too early on his own accord, the pressure build up would be ruined and his support rendered less effective. Whatever the case may be, Biden must listen to each union and approach each dispute as the workers see fit.

It’s a simple ask from the unions, but there will be outside voices pressuring Biden to step in. They will not have workers’ interests at heart. Already, several outlets have published articles that set the groundwork for federal intervention in the name economic stability. Politico’s piece “‘This is a problem’: Biden faces looming strikes that could rock economy” includes a warning that the strikes will “threaten to rock the economy ahead of the presidential election.” The Associated Press similarly cautioned that “a series of strikes could also sink the U.S. economy and Biden’s message to voters.”

Biden cannot allow this fear mongering to sway his resolve. As with the rail strikes, the unions leverage lies within the economic impact of a strike. Such leverage was instrumental in the Teamsters win against UPS and should be a source of fear for corporations, not the executive branch. It’s a golden opportunity to draw a line in the sand, with Biden unequivocally taking the side of workers while corporate lackeys, Republicans, and the business press hand-wring about the economy. Biden’s presidential campaign has much more to gain from backing the working class than acquiescing to economists’ hysteria. Americans have been begging for a President that fights big money interests on behalf of the workers. It’s time for “Union Joe” to earn his nickname.

Image Credit: “President Biden economic development event (52692358106)” by Maryland GovPics is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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