Biden seeks to build Democratic support among unions

President Biden escalated his engagement with labor unions this week in hopes of garnering more support with the pro-worker community that helped elect him into office.

© Getty Images President Biden with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh

“I intend to be the most pro-union president, leading the most pro-union administration in American history,” Biden said during a forum on Wednesday, resurfacing a campaign pledge meant to sway scores of workers to support a Democratic administration.

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“I think one of the reasons I’m able to do that is the public is changing too, you’ve changed the public, you’ve educated them a lot,” the president said.

For years, Biden has ingratiated himself with American workers. Famous for his modest beginnings in the middle class, the president enjoys making personal appeals to industrious individuals all over the country who he says deserve an economic break.

Just before the general election, he pitched the idea of a populist, pro-worker agenda under a hypothetical Biden White House to employees at an aluminum plant in Wisconsin, drawing a contrast between, in his words, the fundamental choice between “Scranton and Park Avenue” in November.

Since his election, Biden has stepped up his commitment to boosting labor – symbolically and with policy.

On Labor Day, he stopped at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 313 in his hometown of Wilmington, Del., with IBEW President Lonnie Stephenson to greet workers with sandwiches. He later joined Labor Sec. Marty Walsh to honor unions’ contributions at the White House.

Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan includes sweeping protections for workers, like investments in labor standards for care workers that include benefits and collective bargaining and access to child care for parents and women in particular to increase labor force participation. The president also has promised the plan’s provisions to tackle climate change would create good-paying union jobs.

Labor officials also say they’re getting more attention from Biden Cabinet officials.

“Not only does he say it without any kind of prompting, but so do members of his cabinet,” said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s director of government affairs. “We had called some agencies that had never had much interest in organized labor … in this administration they want to know how they can help and how they can improve workers.”

Samuel said he has heard from the Energy and Commerce departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and even the Small Business Administration about boosting labor practices and relationships.

“It’s not lip service. It’s in [Biden’s] DNA and I think people recognize that,” he said.

Walsh’s nomination as Labor secretary was also popular with unions and progressives, who have tended to eye the more centrist Biden with some suspicion. Walsh’s nomination was blessed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was also considered for the role, and the new secretary later filled his department with left-wing policy hands close to Sanders.

Still, some say the president must continue to do more for unions, which for years have been losing members and power. They also say doing so is crucial for the Democratic Party, which saw union households shift toward former President Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Democrats have grown increasingly concerned about that shift, and whether a move among white blue-collar workers could be followed by movement from Black and Hispanic union members.

“I think union folks can swing in either direction, D[emocrat] or R[epublican], and it’s traditionally been seen as white-led,” said one progressive Democratic operative who has served on multiple presidential campaigns. “But that’s changing, and should be scary for D[emocrats] who have to hold on to Black and Brown voters and racially and ethnically diverse youth.”

Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive political action organization Our Revolution, questioned whether Biden is backing his rhetoric with policy.

Geevarghese said Biden should champion the PRO Act, sweeping legislation that would stiffen penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights and strengthen protections for employees against retaliation, or act through robust executive action that could increase union participation.

“He’s talking pro-union, he’s delivering a pro-union message much more consistently then he did in the past. The thing is, is he just talking the talk or is he walking the walk,” he said. “The one metric that I think is the most important is union density. Is the union movement growing in members or not?

“Doing whatever it takes, whatever arm twisting it takes, to get the PRO Act passed is essential but he has failed to take leadership, bold leadership, on that,” Geevarghese said.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who co-created the House’s labor caucus, renewed his push for the bill’s passage on Tuesday.

“President Biden understands the value of organized labor, and the importance for workers to have a voice in the workplace,” Pocan told The Hill in a statement. “Unions put President Biden in the White House, and I’m glad to see the Administration follow up on its commitment to fight for worker’s rights and encourage unionization. I look forward to continuing our work together to pass the PRO Act into law.”

While the goal of a labor-heavy docket remains top of mind to many in the White House, some critical policies have been pushed to the sidelines on Capitol Hill, while others have diminished entirely, causing immense frustration among activists.

The first major disappointment came when Congress failed to enact an increase to the federal minimum wage. On principle, Democrats were united behind the proposed raise, agreeing that the national figure should increase over time from $7.25 to $15, an amount that many on the left contend is the lowest possible figure to live on in the United States. Biden assured constituents during the campaign that he would support the measure and use his presidential powers to help get it done, but it eventually failed in the Senate.

One source close to the negotiations in Congress saw the March timeline as the only chance to make a significant improvement to the livelihoods of workers ahead of the midterms, but others say there is still some breathing room.

“I don’t think they’ve given up and we haven’t given up,” said Samuel. “We’re going to have to get back to that.”

In the interim, Biden has made some headway through executive action. In April, he signed an order that ensures federal contractors will make at least $15 per hour during his administration, a significant hike set to take effect in January 2022.

Outside groups are also energized about passing pro-worker legislation. The Sunrise Movement, which has been increasingly antagonistic towards the administration lately, stressed that environmental issues are directly linked to the pro-labor movement and urged Biden to take action directly.

“Biden must ensure the PRO Act passes through reconciliation,” said Communications Director Ellen Sciales. “It will take a massive worker mobilization to transform our economy and society in the fight against climate change, and those jobs must be good jobs, with green profits going to workers, not corporate executives like Elon Musk.”

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