‘Most pro-union chairman’ runs into doubt in Labor ranks

A freight yard in Atlanta, Ga.  Thursday, September 15, 2022. (Dustin Chambers/The New York Times)

A freight yard in Atlanta, Ga. Thursday, September 15, 2022. (Dustin Chambers/The New York Times)

Joe Biden promised to be “the most union president you’ve ever seen.” And for the past two years, labor leaders have often praised him for keeping that promise.

They cite union-friendly appointees and a number of pro-labor measures, such as a pandemic relief bill that included tens of billions in support of union pension funds.

But in recent weeks, after Biden helped force a contract on railroad workers that four unions had rejected, in part because of its lack of paid sick days, many labor activists and scholars have begun to ask: How supportive is the president, really?

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For those reevaluating Biden, the concern is that by asking Congress to step in and avert a strike, the president missed a rare opportunity to improve workers’ bargaining power in ways that could extend beyond the railroad sector. They worry that the move essentially validated an employer strategy of waiting out workers in hopes that the pressure would ease.

“Whether or not this group of workers has sick days at some level was not the issue,” said Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at Columbia University who studies labor. “It was: What can people ask for and expect to gain through collective action?”

That Biden didn’t take a stronger stand, she added, “suggested a political blindness to what was really at stake.”

At heart, the rail episode has sparked a debate about what it means to be a pro-Labour president.

Advocates see Biden as unusually outspoken on behalf of workers’ rights. They cite his declaration during a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats” — an unusual but carefully worded gesture of presidential solidarity — and his dismay that Kellogg planned to permanently replace striking workers.

“He has helped create a mood in the country when it comes to unions that has helped drive the extraordinary organizing going,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which organized the failed drive in Alabama. store and challenge the result. Appelbaum added that Biden’s announcement during the campaign was “beyond what we had hoped for.”

The president’s backers also point to a number of work-friendly rules and legislation. Biden issued an executive order requiring so-called project labor agreements on federal construction projects over $35 million — agreements with unions that set wages and work rules — and the major climate and health care bill he signed created incentives for clean energy projects to pay wages equal to union rates.

Celeste Drake, a senior White House labor adviser, said in a statement that Biden had made “lasting strides for workers and unions” and that many of his accomplishments were “carried over by razor-thin margins in Congress, often with Republicans votes where the president’s advocacy of unions as a means of rebuilding the middle class could have jeopardized everything.” (More than 70% of Americans approve of unions, according to a recent Gallup poll.)

Liz Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO, who was the union’s second-ranking official during Barack Obama’s presidency, said the Biden administration had been far more careful with labor than the former Democratic president, who labor leaders sometimes criticized for supporting free trade. agreements and controversial changes in education policy.

“For the decisions that were made in the Obama administration, labor was often an afterthought,” Shuler said. “It’s the opposite with Biden. We’re included at the table beforehand, before decisions are made.”

Even the railroad labor situation, in which Biden urged Congress to pass a contract that included significant wage increases and health care improvements, ended more favorably for workers than it likely would have under another administration, unionists say.

Biden’s alternative view, advanced by many labor historians and activists, is that while the president has indeed been more committed to unions and maintained better relations with union leaders than his recent Democratic predecessors, the difference is one of degree rather than kind. .

They say Biden, like his predecessors, is effectively seeking to manage the long-term decline in labor in a relatively humane way — by making favorable appointments and enacting measures that help the margins — but has yet to take the kind of risks that would restore power to the workers.

Biden has “moved in interesting ways at certain moments,” said Gabriel Winant, a labor historian at the University of Chicago. “But he doesn’t seem to have the guts to see the moves through.”

For those who subscribe to that view, the railroad labor dispute was a telling encapsulation of Biden’s approach: a case in which the administration worked closely with many leaders of the dozen unions that represent railroad workers, but angered parts of the congregation. Members of four unions voted down the deal the administration had helped broker, but were not allowed to strike for a better one.

Administration officials say that while Biden strongly supports the right to strike, the potential cost to the economy, which the industry said could be more than $2 billion a day, was simply too high to allow railroad workers to walk off the job. They point out that a strike could also have brought health and safety risks – for example by stopping shipments of chemicals that ensure clean drinking water.

But for critics, those risks were, in a sense, the point: They gave workers a rare moment of leverage. They say Biden could have simply refused to sign any legislation that didn’t include paid sick days, then made it clear that the railroad companies were to blame for any disruption if they refused.

“The bite in this case revealed that I’m your friend, but I’m not going to risk anything for you,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a Georgetown University historian who has written extensively on transportation labor disputes.

And if taking a more forceful stand on behalf of rail workers was high risk, McCartin said, it was also high reward: Because transportation infrastructure touches nearly every part of the country, labor conditions in that sector tend to resonate.

“Everybody’s seeing it, everybody’s watching, everybody’s affected,” he said. An open letter to Biden last month, signed by McCartin and more than 400 other scholars, said federal intervention in transportation labor disputes “could set the tone for entire eras.”

The letter cited the government’s move to give railway workers an eight-hour day to avoid a strike during World War I, which paved the way for similar gains for other workers in the 1930s. In contrast, the letter said, President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in the early 1980s helped undermine workers’ influence across the economy for decades.

The claim among critics is that by effectively stripping railroad workers of the right to strike, Biden has made it harder for other workers to use that tool — and ultimately reverse the movement’s long-term decline.

Strikes with strong union membership “are the only way to win standard-setting contracts, and winning standard-setting contracts is the only way to rebuild the labor movement,” said Jane McAlevey, a scholar and longtime organizer. Her forthcoming book, “Rules to Win By: Power and Participation in Union Negotiations,” documents the importance of aggressive industrial action to improve wages and working conditions.

Workers and organizers spearheading recent union campaigns at companies such as Starbucks and Amazon said they were concerned that Biden’s involvement in the railroad labor dispute sent a message to employers that the federal government would not punish them for anti-union behavior.

“Everybody understands the importance of the president getting involved,” said Christian Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union, which won an election to represent workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, in April. “To claim to be the most pro-union president in history and do something like this contradicts everything.” (Amazon has challenged the union’s victory.)

In some respects, it may have been unrealistic for labor activists to expect that Biden, who has carried himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat for much of his career, would deviate from the basic model of labor relations that has long prevailed. in his party.

But during the presidential campaign, Biden and some of his senior advisers discussed ways they hoped to break with longstanding economic orthodoxy in Washington, with its emphasis on free markets and a small role for government.

Those who support more populist policies say Biden has delivered in certain ways: by enacting subsidies for domestic production and restrictions on trade with China, and appointing regulators who have often gone to court to block large mergers.

“Clearly progress has been made,” said Oren Cass, a former Republican political aide and the founder of American Compass, which seeks to make conservatism more supportive of workers.

But when it comes to labor, some say Biden has been less willing to rethink the prevailing economic model.

“If Biden had intervened in a way that was more favorable and sympathetic to the railroad workers, it would have been a sign that he is really breaking with that model, and the model itself no longer seems to fit the current moment,” Phillips said. Fein, the Columbia Historian. “That it didn’t happen suggests the limits of his political imagination.”

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