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Will Pres. Joe Biden restore worker and union power?

Steven Hill21.01.2021

Joe Biden was the most pro-labor presidential nominee in many years. Will he be able to deliver? Fighting a pandemic, combined with the antiquated US political system, may ruin his chances.

Joe Biden, while speaking with CEOs of some of the largest US companies, told them, "I want you to know I’m a union guy. Unions are going to have increased power” under his administration. Biden, who has a long-standing relationship with union leaders, pledged to them to be the "strongest labor president you have ever had."

But will a President Biden actually deliver? His chosen nominee for his Secretary of Labor, who was strongly backed by the AFL-CIO and major labor unions, seems to indicate that Biden means business. On the other hand, the priorities dictated by fighting the COVID pandemic, combined with the antiquated US political system and the grip that big business and special interests have on the Democratic Party, could make a strong labor agenda difficult to fulfill.

Just look at the last Democratic president. Barack Obama was talented at giving a great pro-labor speech, yet had a mixed record. His appointments to important administrative bodies like the National Labor Relations Board were top-notch, and federal agencies generally received high praises from labor advocates. But legislatively, there were few major accomplishments. And Obama never attempted any bold initiatives, such as introducing codetermination or short work (Kurzarbeit) during the Great Recession of 2008-10, or even copying a US version of Germany’s comprehensive vocational training, which might have drawn bipartisan support.

One of the Obama administration’s biggest disappointments was failing to pass a law that aimed to re-level the playing field by making it easier to organize a labor union. That legislation, called 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 hold an election), which makes it more difficult for employers to campaign against unions. EFCA was the top priority of organized labor, which had strongly supported Obama for president with hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations, plus thousands of volunteers. Yet President Obama did not expend much political capital trying to pass it. And when the Occupy Wall Street movement raised the issue of rising inequality to a peak level, President Obama failed to harness that energy and change the direction of the country.

Granted, the Obama administration inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and after his first two years in office a Republican-controlled Congress relentlessly tried to obstruct his agenda. But Joe Biden also will inherit a terrible economy, thanks to the Covid pandemic. A number of trade union members thought that President Obama continued in the tradition of previous Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter -- treating labor unions warmly during their campaigns, only to sideline labor’s priorities after Election Day.

Obama 2.0 will not be enough.

Will Joe Biden do the same, given all the support that the labor movement provided for him? Certainly Obama was kilometers better than President Donald Trump (see my previous Mitbestimmungsportal column “Trump attacks workers and the labor movement in the US”). But Joe Biden – Obama’s former vice president – will have to be kilometers better than Obama. Obama 2.0 will not be enough.

That’s because the economic conditions that led to populist Donald Trump’s election have not faded. Quite the contrary. In the 1990s, the employment rate of men with only a high school degree was about 73%. That figure fell below 70% after the 2001 recession and never bounced back. Then it fell below 65% following the Great Recession and stayed there through the long, slow recovery. When COVID struck, it fell below 55% and still remains below 60%. This decline has resulted in about 4 million fewer men working, many of whom formed part of Donald Trump’s base. A part of that base became a dangerous, Trump-incited right-wing mob that mounted an attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021.

So President Biden has his work cut out for him.

The good news is that Biden had one of the most ambitious plans addressing labor issues

A new pro-labor Secretary of Labor

The good news, according to labor advocates, is Biden’s pick as his Secretary of Labor. Unions had tried to exert major pressure in this selection, counting it as a bellwether of their influence with Biden. The last Democratic president to name a labor secretary with direct ties to the movement was President John F. Kennedy, way back in 1961.

So labor leaders were thrilled when Biden nominated the current Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, a self-described “lifelong champion of working people” who earned his union card in 1988 when he joined Laborers Local 223 and was head of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council before becoming mayor. Walsh won high praise from labor leaders like Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor confederation in the US composed of 55 unions with more than 12.5 million members.

Biden specifically touted Walsh’s support for raising the federal minimum wage and paid family leave, as well as an overtime rule proposed under the Obama-Biden administration that was weakened by the Trump administration. “Marty understands, like I do, the middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said in nominating him. In his acceptance speech, Walsh spoke passionately about his working class, Irish Catholic roots, saying, “Working people have been struggling for a long time under the erosion of their rights and the deep inequalities of race, gender, and class. Now we have the opportunity to put power back in the hands of working people all across this country.”

Also good news is the fact that, as a candidate, Biden had one of the most ambitious plans addressing worker issues, corporate power and labor unions of any major presidential nominee in many years. Many of his campaign proposals tracked the campaign platform of the more progressive candidate, democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (who Biden almost nominated for his labor secretary, but reportedly both leaders agreed that, with the Democrats’ one-vote majority in the US Senate, it would have been too risky that Sanders’s vacant seat might have flipped to Republicans in a special election). Here is an outline of a few of Candidate Biden’s labor proposals:

  • Support the right to organize. The Biden campaign proposed amending decades-old labor laws to expand workers' collective bargaining rights and adding penalties for companies that retaliate against employees for forming unions. Biden also says he supports EFCA’s card-check system, which he supported as a Senator co-sponsor of the original legislative bill (but we’ll see if he and labor secretary Walsh exert any more political muscle on this than Obama did).
  • Worker misclassification. Biden's campaign plan included "aggressively pursuing employers who violate labor 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."
  • Support for gig workers. Biden supported California’s law that went into effect in January 2020, AB 5, that reclassified Uber drivers and delivery people, as well as other types of gig workers and independent contractors, as employees (see “A blow against ‘bogus self-employment’ and gig economy” in Mitbestimmungsportal). That entitled them to minimum wages, welfare benefits and labor protections. Biden has advocated to expand the California law to the federal level. However, Uber and Lyft ignored the law and then spent an astounding $200 million on a ballot initiative this past November to overturn the part of AB 5 that applied to their drivers. It remains to be seen if that loss will dim Biden’s enthusiasm for federal regulation covering gig workers.
  • Cracking down on “third-party” companies. The Biden campaign also proposed enacting legislation restoring a broad definition of "joint employer," which would include any company that exercises indirect control over the terms and conditions of employment. This proposal has significant implications for companies that use temporary workers through a third-party company or agency, and for franchisors like McDonalds that do not directly employ the workers of their franchisees yet exercise indirect control over work conditions.
  • Workplace safety. Under President Donald Trump, the number of inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enforce workplace regulations fell to the lowest level in decades. Biden has promised to double the number of OSHA inspectors, and to give regulators the power to issue citations or fines for health and safety violations due to the coronavirus outbreak. 
  • Federal minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has stood at USD $7.25 an hour since 2009, the longest it has ever gone unchanged. Biden has promised to incrementally increase the federal minimum hourly wage to USD $15 per hour. He also supports indexing the minimum wage to the median hourly wage, to ensure low-wage workers’ pay keeps pace with middle-income workers, and said he aims to "ensure everyone has strong benefits." 
  • Eliminating “right-to-work” laws. “Right to work” laws have been passed in 28 states, and they allow workers to opt out of paying union dues yet still receive the benefits of a union contract. These laws have drastically reduced the number of union members, as well as their dues and bargaining strength, so Biden has proposed eliminating these laws.

How much will Joe Biden be willing to challenge big business interests?

While Biden has proposed some policies put forward for many years by labor unions and think tanks like the Center for American Progress, he has not embraced bolder initiatives, such as supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren’s legislation for codetermination, or labor advocates’ call for a portable safety net. Progressive Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have sounded the alarm over Biden’s deep ties to big money donors. While the Biden campaign liked to boast about the many small donations it raised, in the last six months of the election, it raised $200 million from individual donors who gave at least $100,000 each. Billionaires and multimillionaires from Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley wrote big checks, and one fundraiser, hosted by a billionaire financier, charged $500,000 per ticket. How much will Joe Biden be willing to challenge these big business interests on behalf of workers and labor unions?

Others on the progressive left see other red flags. Biden’s nominee for the Secretary of the Treasurer, former Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen, and his nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress, have both expressed their willingness to make cuts to the national pension system, Social Security, and other safety net programs, as part of a grand bargain toward long-term deficit reduction. In the past, Senator Biden both supported – and opposed – cuts to Social Security. To many who worked on the Biden campaign, including from the labor movement, these are warning signs that may portend future betrayals.

The Biden administration will also face a U.S. labor market that is still recovering from a pandemic-induced shock that ended a decade of job growth. He has promised to create millions of jobs with the help of further fiscal stimulus, and he proposes to create clean energy jobs as part of his climate plan, and to "build a strong industrial base and small-business-led supply chains to retain and create millions of good-paying union jobs in manufacturing and technology." He also has pledged to roll out an ambitious 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots during his first 100 days in office, and to re-open schools and the economy. It’s a very ambitious agenda, so labor issues easily could get lost in the shuffle, as they did with Obama.

The looming Senate obstacle

Another obstacle will be the US Senate. The federal government’s upper chamber – which likes to proclaim itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body” – in actual fact 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 10 racial minorities (four Latinos, three Asian-Americans and three African-Americans). Giving Democrats and Biden a huge lift, on January 5, 2021 two Senate runoff elections in the conservative US state of Georgia resulted in astounding Democratic victories in both races. The Democrats unexpectedly now have a squeaky slim Senate majority, based on a 50-50 tie with Biden’s vice president, Kamala Harris, empowered by law to break all tie votes.

Nevertheless, the Senate will still likely remain the chamber “where legislation goes to die,” as has been said, because of its use of arcane, anti-majoritarian rules, such as the filibuster. According to longstanding Senate practice, for most pieces of legislation a mere 41 out of 100 Senators can vote to cut off debate on a specific bill and prevent a final vote. Will the 50 GOP Senators use this procedural club to kill legislation? In addition, several Democratic Senators, such as from states like West Virginia and Montana are themselves fairly conservative. As a former longtime Senator, Joe Biden has a deep understanding of the byzantine ways of the Senate’s process. He will need all of his political skill to wring something good out of that antiquated and bumbling legislative chamber. 

So despite the Georgia Senate wins, any bold legislation likely will struggle to get through Congress. That leaves President Biden with the flawed alternative of issuing executive orders, much like President Trump did when frustrated with Congress. Indeed, recognizing the bleakness of the Senate math, leading progressive organizations and media outlets have drafted long lists of their preferred executive orders. One such attempt found 277 policies that can be enacted through executive branch powers:  48 orders would be rollbacks of Trump-era policy changes, 78 would focus on immigration, 54 on labor, the economy and health care, and another 54 on climate change.

The blowback that would surely result from such an abuse of this executive power, including a dangerous undermining of the democratic process itself, seems not to have occurred to its proponents.

The Biden administration will face enormous challenges that could limit successful achievement of any progressive goals.

Many in Germany and throughout the EU cheered the election of Joe Biden, and are hoping to see a return to Washington DC of some semblance of their old post-World War II ally. Certainly Biden and his team will be a welcome break from the Trumpian madness and menace. But given the severe institutional constraints of America’s antiquated political system in the US Senate, as well as the influence of big-money donors, plus the need to overcome a crippling pandemic combined with the deep political and cultural divisions that continue to plague the nation, any high hopes may well be disappointed.

Whether the issue is treatment of workers and labor unions, or climate change and foreign policy, the Biden administration will face enormous challenges that could limit successful achievement of any progressive goals.

Steven Hill

is the author of “Die Startup Illusion: Wie die Internet-Ökonomie unseren Sozialstaat ruiniert” and “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age.” He is a former senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC. Contact him @StevenHill1776.

For the Mitbestimmungsportal, Steven is writing a column on the digital economy and its impacts on jobs, the labor force and society.