What will happen to worker and union power under Biden?

By Steven Hill, Social Europe, Feb 15, 2021

Joe Biden was the most pro-labour presidential nominee in years. But he’s fighting a pandemic and faces the antiquated US political system. 

During his campaign for the presidency of the United States, Joe Biden told union leaders he was ‘a union guy’ and pledged to be the ‘strongest labor president’ ever. But in the aftermath of the right-wing mob attack on the Capitol, in the middle of a pandemic which has killed close to 500,000 Americans and collapsed the economy, and with the grip big business has on the Democratic Party, can Biden deliver? Or is the US headed into prolonged political instability, reeling from a populism which has made inroads into the working class and union members?

The economic conditions which led to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 have not faded. In the 1990s, the employment rate of men with only a high-school degree was about 73 per cent. That fell below 70 per cent after the 2001 recession and below 65 per cent following the 2008 crash. When the coronavirus struck, it fell below 55 per cent and remains below 60: four million fewer men are working. Many formed part of Trump’s base and some participated in the January 6th attack.

Mixed record

Past Democratic presidents, including Barack Obama, have failed to keep their labour promises. Obama could give a great pro-labour speech but had a mixed record. His appointments to important administrative bodies, such as the National Labour Relations Board, were top-notch and federal agencies generally received high praise from labour advocates. Legislatively, however, there were few accomplishments.

One of Obama’s biggest disappointments was failing to pass a law to re-level the playing-field by making it easier to organise a union. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would have implemented a card-check system (allowing a majority of workers to sign pro-union cards rather than an election being required), making it more difficult for employers to campaign against unions. EFCA was the priority of organised labour, which had strongly supported Obama for president with hundreds of millions of dollars plus thousands of volunteers.

So while Republicans are unrelentingly anti-labour, Democrats have a spotty record—including as lead proponents of free-trade agreements which have resulted in offshored jobs and reduced wages in manufacturing and elsewhere. Consequently, the votes of many union members have been up for grabs.

Obama won union households by 18 per cent in 2012. But with more than one-third of union members voting for Trump in 2016, Hillary Clinton won union households by only 8 per cent, costing her the election in key battleground states. Biden reversed that, winning union households by 16 per cent, but Trump still won 40 per cent of them.

Ambitious plans

As candidate, Biden had one of the most ambitious plans addressing worker issues of any major presidential nominee in many years. Many of his campaign proposals tracked the platform of the more progressive candidate, the democratic-socialist senator Bernie Sanders:—

  • The right to organise:the Biden campaign proposed amending decades-old labour laws to expand workers’ bargaining rights and penalise companies retaliating against employees for forming unions. He has supported the card-check system, but did little when he was Obama’s vice-president to push it forward.
  • Worker misclassification: his campaign plan included ‘aggressively pursuing employers who violate labour laws, participate in wage theft, or cheat on their taxes by intentionally misclassifying employees as independent contractors’. Biden also called for increased funding for investigators to ‘facilitate a large anti-misclassification effort’. 
  • Gig workers:Biden supported California’s law AB 5, which went into effect a year ago, reclassifying Uber drivers and delivery people, as well as other types of gig workers and independent contractors, as employees entitled to minimum wages, welfare benefits and labour protections. Biden has advocated expanding the law to the federal level. Uber and Lyft however ignored it and spent an astonishing $200 million on a ballot initiative last November to overturn the part of AB 5 applying to their drivers. Will that dim Biden’s enthusiasm for federal regulation?
  • ‘Third party’ companies:the campaign also proposed restoring a broad definition of ‘joint employer’, which would include any company that exercised indirect control over terms and conditions of employment. This would have significant implications for companies that use temporary workers through a third-party company or agency, and for franchisors such as McDonalds.
  • Workplace safety:under Trump, the number of federal inspectors to enforce workplace regulations fell to the lowest in decades. Biden has promised to double their number and to give regulators the power to issue citations or fines for health-and-safety violations associated with the pandemic. 
  • The federal minimum wage: this has stood at $7.25 an hour since 2009, the longest it has gone unchanged. Biden has promised incremental increases to $15 per hour. He also supports indexing the minimum wage to the median, to ensure low-wage workers keep pace with those on middle incomes.
  • ‘Right to work’ laws: these have been passed in 28 states, allowing workers to opt out of paying union dues while receiving the benefits of a union contract. They have drastically reduced union density, as well as revenues and bargaining strength, and Biden has proposed their elimination. 

Biden did not however embrace bolder initiatives, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s legislation for German-style co-determination or labour advocates’ demand for a portable safety net. And Progressive Democrats such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sounded the alarm over Biden’s deep ties to big donors: while his campaign liked to boast about the many small donations it received, in the final six months it raised $200 million from donors who gave at least $100,000 each. One fundraiser, hosted by a billionaire financier, charged $500,000 per ticket.

In a positive sign, Biden nominated the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, as secretary of labour. Major unions backed the nomination of ‘one of them’—a former head of the Building and Construction Trades union. The last president to nominate a labour secretary with direct ties to the movement was John F Kennedy, way back in 1961.

The new administration faces a labour market still sputtering from a pandemic-induced shock which ended a decade of job growth. Biden has pledged to build a strong industrial base and create millions of good-paying union jobs in manufacturing and technology, and to create clean energy jobs as part of his climate plan. But he has also promised to roll out  100 million Covid-19 vaccine shots during his first 100 days and to reopen schools and the economy. It’s a very ambitious agenda, so labour issues easily could get lost in the shuffle—as they did with Obama.

Senate obstacle

A major obstacle to Biden’s ambitions will be the Senate. The federal government’s upper chamber—which likes to proclaim itself ‘the world’s greatest deliberative body’—is about as representative as the UK’s House of Lords. It is overwhelmingly a chamber of elderly white males, with only 25 female senators out of 100 and ten members of ethnic minorities (four Latinos, three Asian-Americans and three African-Americans) in a nation that is 40 per cent minority.

The Democrats now have the slimmest of Senate majorities, based on a 50-50 split with the Republicans but with the vice-president, Kamala Harris, exercising the casting vote. It will however likely remain the chamber ‘where legislation goes to die’, because of its arcane, anti-majoritarian rules, such as the filibuster: for most legislation, 60 out of 100 senators must agree to move a bill forward.

In addition, several Democratic senators, such as those from West Virginia and Montana, are fairly conservative. As a former longtime senator, Biden has a deep understanding of the byzantine ways of the chamber. He will need all his political skill to wring anything good out of it.  

With bold legislation struggling to get through Congress, Biden is left with the flawed alternative of issuing streams of executive orders, much as Trump did when similarly frustrated with Congress. But such an abuse of executive power comes with its own blowback, including a dangerous undermining of Congress and the democratic process.

Dark strategy

The other X-factor is Trump himself. Many Republican leaders are trying to restore his reputation—as well as his Twitter and Facebook accounts—so he can continue as the de facto party leader. Others are trying to work out a way to dethrone him.

Even if he disappears, though, he has fashioned the dark strategy for how populist leaders can use hate-mongering and disinformation, aided by digital-media platforms, to win votes. There is a willing audience among many of the 74 million Americans who voted for him in 2020. Unless the root causes of poor jobs and the decline of trade unions are addressed, some version of Trump may arise in the future.

Many in Europe cheered the election of Biden and are hoping to see a return in Washington DC of some semblance of the old postwar ally. Certainly Biden and his team will be a welcome break from Trump’s madness and menace.

But given the severe institutional constraints of America’s antiquated political system, plus the need to overcome a crippling pandemic, combined with deep political and cultural divisions, the Biden administration will face enormous challenges, limiting its successes on most progressive goals.

Steven Hill is the former policy director at the Center for Humane Technology and author of seven books, including Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers and The Startup Illusion: How the Internet Economy Threatens Our Welfare.

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