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Will Biden's Union Efforts Get Anywhere?
The White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment might become a tale of WOE
Noam Scheiber brings us up to date on the Biden administration’s union efforts, triggered by the release of a detailed report from the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment:
The report is the product of a task force [White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment] that President Biden created through an executive order in April. A White House statement said the president had accepted the task force’s nearly 70 recommendations.
The charge to the task force is included in the report:
The Task Force and its members shall identify executive branch policies, practices, and programs that could be used, consistent with applicable law, to promote my Administration’s policy of support for worker power, worker organizing, and collective bargaining.
And they go on to do so for 45 pages, including a good introduction to Federal labor law — the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 that formed the National Labor Relations Board, the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, various anti-union Supreme Court cases — as well as spelling out the motivation behind the union push by Biden:
Worker empowerment is also at the core of how we talk about building our economy, demonstrated by the President’s, Vice President’s, and Cabinet members’ frequent advocacy for workers’ rights, including the right to a free and fair choice to join a union and to demand respect for workers’ rights. Perhaps most notably, the President and Vice President made strong public statements of support for worker rights in February 2021. As the President said in his video message, “the choice of forming a union is the worker’s choice, full stop…there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, and no anti-union propaganda” when workers are deciding whether to organize a union. In the words of the Vice President: “I support union workers and those working to unionize, in Alabama and across America.”
The result of 70 years of anti-union policies by business and government is easily demonstrated by this chart plotting income inequality and union membership:
Nothing makes the case for the downward pressure on the middle-class dreams of Americans being negatively impacted by the decrease in union strength. Here, in 2022, about 10% of the US workforce is unionized.
However, when polled (as Gallup has done), Americans’ approval of unions is at its highest since 1965, as noted in the report:
As summarized in Figure 3, the number of non-union workers saying that they would vote for a union at their job if one were available to them, has grown significantly over time, from one-third of respondents in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to over half of all workers in recent years. Support for a union in their workplace rises to 74% for workers aged 18 to 24, 75% for Hispanic workers, 80% for Black workers, and 82% for Black women workers (the highest of any race and gender group).
If all these workers had the union representation that they say they want, union membership would be four to five times higher than it is right now.
Returning to Scheiber:
Many of the steps would make it easier for federal workers and employees of contractors to unionize, including ensuring that union organizers have access to employees on federal property, which does not always happen today.
One key premise of the task force was that the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that protects federal labor rights, explicitly encourages collective bargaining and yet, according to the Biden White House, no previous administration had explored ways that the executive branch could do so systematically.
The ambition of the task force was twofold: to enact policies for federal agencies and contractors that encourage unionization and to model best practices for employers in the public and private sectors.
One major intent of the task force is to explicitly define what US federal policies need to be put into place so that the government can clearly stand as a model actor in the labor relations domain.
The likelihood of the recommendations moving beyond executive orders and into legislation that would become the law is low. The PRO Act [Protecting the Right to Organize ACT] has passed the House but faces challenges in the Senate, where Republicans are likely to filibuster the bill. There are huge obstacles, as organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce and Republican-led states that have enacted so-called ‘right-to-work’ anti-union laws are deeply opposed to the PRO Act.
Among other aspects of the PRO Act support for unions, it seeks to bring into line how gig and temp workers are treated, as Nicholas Fandos wrote in 2021:
Importantly, the bill also proposes changing how workers and their employers determine who is eligible to unionize to reflect the proliferation of contract or temporary workers who are doing the same work as full-paid employees. The provision would most likely result in tens of thousands of gig workers or more gaining the ability to organize.
Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist who studies unions at Washington University in St. Louis, suggested Democrats’ legislation was less drastic than some Republicans were making it out to be.
“It’s not as if the United States is going to turn into Sweden any time soon when it comes to worker power,” he said. “This bill still doesn’t alter the fundamental workplace arrangements in any way. What it does is try to honor the letter of the National Labor Relations Act and let workers who want actual representation have a fair shot.”
In the context of recent anti-unionization efforts of Amazon and Starbucks, and an effort to clear barriers to unionization of Congressional staffers, Biden’s Task Force is pushing hard against entrenched anti-union business and political culture.