The most pro-union president of your lifetime

By DON McINTOSH

Polls show approval for President Joe Biden has dropped below 40% (from a high of 55% in early 2021). The president’s proposals for universal preschool and free community college are stalled. His blockbuster Build Back Better bill is two Democrats short of the barest 50+1 majority in the Senate. But when it comes to support for organized labor, Joe Biden has been—without question—the most aggressively pro-union president since FDR died in office in 1945. 

Nothing in Biden’s record in the Senate or as vice president seemed to suggest he would be an over-the-top labor ally. But judging by his first full year in office, Biden has led, as Labor Secretary Marty Walsh put it last October, “the most pro-union pro-worker administration of our lifetime.” 

It started on Day One. Just hours after Biden was sworn into office, an email went out from the White House to Peter Robb, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): Resign by the end of the day, or you’re fired. NLRB general counsel is the top official responsible for protecting the union rights of most private sector workers. But Robb, a Trump appointee, had worked to weaken workers’ union rights, and even tried to bar the use of the beloved union inflatable Scabby the Rat on some job sites. Robb refused to resign. He was fired that day.

Seriously pro-union appointees

To fill Robb’s spot at the NLRB, Biden appointed Jennifer Abruzzo, a top attorney for Communications Workers of America. Since she was confirmed by the Senate as NLRB general counsel in July, she’s shaping up to be the most aggressive protector of workers’ rights the NLRB has seen in living memory. Abruzzo has been reaching back deep into the agency’s history to reinstate more pro-worker interpretations of the law. Biden also appointed two straight-up union lawyers to the NLRB’s five-member board, a body that acts kind of like a supreme court interpreting labor law.

In fact, at every agency that deals with workers’ rights or safety, Biden moved quickly to appoint pro-union officials, who immediately got to work. To head the Department of Labor (DOL), he named Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former construction laborer, president of Laborers Local 223, and head of the Boston Building Trades. Confirmed by the Senate in March, Walsh became the first union leader to lead the Labor Department in more than half a century. Meanwhile, to oversee DOL’s Wage and Hour division, Biden appointed Minnesota Building Trades leader Jessica Looman.

To lead OSHA (the worker safety agency) Biden appointed James Frederick, a 25-year worker safety advocate at the United Steelworkers. To chair the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), which deals with disputes between government unions and agencies, he appointed union attorney and former AFL-CIO legislative counsel Ernest DuBester. The list goes on.

Sweeping executive orders

Congress moves slowly, but the president is the federal government’s chief executive, and can get a lot done through executive orders directing the federal workforce. Biden swiftly overturned Trump’s anti-union executive orders, including multiple Trump orders that curtailed federal worker union rights, as well as the Trump executive order that set up employer-controlled apprenticeship programs called IRAPs. Since then, Biden has issued executive orders to:

  • Require all federal contractors to pay at least $15 an hour (up from $11.25) starting February 2022 (lifting wages for nearly 70,000 workers).
  • Strengthen Buy America rules to require at least 60% of products purchased by the government to be made in the United States (up from 55%), with the threshold to increase to 75% in the next decade. [It’s the biggest change to the Buy America rules in 70 years.]
  • Require federal agencies to educate new hires about their right to join a union, and allow federal unions to participate in new hire training sessions.

‘Thou shalt build it union’

On Feb. 3, 2022, Biden signed an executive order requiring the use of project labor agreements (PLAs) on federal construction projects of over $35 million. PLAs are agreements to use union labor, with limited exceptions. The administration estimates the order will apply to $262 billion in federal government construction, with contracts employing 200,000 construction workers.

Rescuing union pensions

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act, passed in March 2021, has a lot of components—$1,400 checks, refundable child tax credits, extended unemployment, and billions in aid to state and local governments. But it also authorizes an estimated $86 billion to rescue union-sponsored multiemployer pensions that were running out of funds—restoring retirement security to over a million union households.

Boosting infrastructure jobs

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in November, authorizes $1.2 trillion over five years to upgrade bridges and highways, rail systems and transit, ports and airports, water systems, broadband infrastructure, and more. It’s the biggest investment in America’s physical infrastructure since the 1950s.

Worker Organizing task force

Last April, Biden announced the formation of a “Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment” made up of two dozen cabinet members and top administration officials, and led by led by Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Walsh. “It is the policy of my administration to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining,” Biden said in the order establishing the task force. The goal of the task force was to recommend executive branch policies that could promote union organizing and collective bargaining. On Feb. 7, the task force released its report, with nearly 70 recommendations. They range from attaching labor standards to federal grants and loans to requiring greater disclosure from union-busting consultants, and much more.

Frequent use of the bully pulpit

It was President Theodore Roosevelt who coined the phrase “bully pulpit.” Bully at the time was a slang word meaning “very good.” The idea was that presidents can be uniquely persuasive advocates, because millions will hear their words. From the beginning Biden has used his bully pulpit to advocate for labor. In the lead-up to a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, Biden recorded a video calling on Amazon to refrain from “intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.” It was the first time since President Harry Truman that a sitting President issued a statement in support of workers who were organizing.

He also just mentions the word “union”—a lot—possibly more than any other president. If he talks about jobs, they’re usually “good union jobs.”

In the last 75 years, the White House has often toggled between Republican presidents who actively harmed unions and Democrats who could be at best neutral. Biden’s record so far suggests he’s aiming to earn the title of most pro-union president ever.

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