When Joe Biden was running for president, he promised union members that he would be the “best friend labor has ever had in the White House.”
Now in office, Biden is keeping his distance from the biggest union fight of his early presidency, one involving a powerful company that gave to his inauguration and has pledged to help his administration fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
The White House on Wednesday declined to directly endorse the union election at the e-commerce giant Amazon’s Alabama warehouse, telling POLITICO that, It’s the president’s position — and the policy of the U.S. government — to encourage union organizing and collective bargaining.
A Biden spokeswoman stressed that it’s also White House policy not to comment on the merits of specific cases that are currently before, or likely to be before, the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates unionization campaigns.
“President Biden has urged employers not to run anti-union campaigns or interfere with organizing and bargaining, and has called for holding employers accountable and increasing penalties when they do,” the spokeswoman said.
The comments from the White House underscore the delicate political dynamics that exist around the election in Alabama — an election that could result in Amazon’s first unionized factory in America. And they quickly drew a rebuke from labor advocates who still haven’t forgotten about the time former President Barack Obama rebuffed calls to join thousands of public workers protesting against a GOP-led state law that restricted state employees’ ability to unionize, despite previously pledging to walk the picket line on behalf of labor.
“If we don’t have the leader of the free world speaking up and saying, I’ve got these workers’ backs, so that they can actually freely choose their union … We’re leaving them stranded,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA told POLITICO in an interview. “I mean this is a real opportunity for the President to say, I mean what I say… when I put forward the ideals that I have in my labor platform.”
Biden’s labor platform includes passing an historic overhaul of federal labor law that would broadly expand workers’ ability to form unions. And so far the new president has appeared to keep his promises to fight for collective bargaining rights. Last month, Biden fired the labor board’s Trump-appointed general counsel and his replacement, the first time in more than 70 years a president has exercised that power over the agency.
The situation in Alabama presents a different set of challenges, however. The factory workers, Nelson added, are “taking on incredible power, and they need to know that they’ve got the president of the United States who has their backs and they’re going to have a fair chance.”
Some 6,000 full-time and part-time factory workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center have been voting throughout February on whether to join The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
If workers vote in favor of union representation, it would be a massive win for organized labor against a company that has been largely hostile to unionization efforts in the past. In recent days, organized labor’s allies in Washington have thrown their weight behind the union drive, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), former state Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-Ga.), as well as actor Danny Glover, releasing a video in support of the election on Wednesday.
“I think it’s important for the administration to demonstrate during this campaign its support for unionization,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said in a published interview earlier this week. Appelbaum declined requests to speak for this story, and the RWDSU instead directed POLITICO to his statement specifying that the Alabama election “is a great opportunity for the administration to show working people what’s important to them.”
Amazon has reportedly encouraged workers to vote “no” in the election, including posting flyers in bathroom stalls at the warehouse. The company also sought to delay the Alabama warehouse election, and requested that the vote take place in person, rather than by mail, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
The company has a fair bit of political heft in Washington, D.C. It was one of many that contributed to the president’s inaugural ceremonies, and it employs former top Biden and Obama White House spokesman Jay Carney, who bundled money for Biden’s election. On the day that Biden was sworn into office, Amazon sent a letter to him offering its help with Covid vaccine distribution.
Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox declined to comment on recent calls for President Biden to weigh in on the union vote.
“We don’t believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views,” Knox told POLITICO. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
During the campaign, Biden took aim at companies like Amazon for not paying corporate taxes, riffing on the disparity on the trail and in tweets. “I have nothing against Amazon, but no company pulling in billions of dollars of profits should pay a lower tax rate than firefighters and teachers,” he said at one point during the primary. “We need to reward work, not just wealth.”
He also ran for president as an unapologetic champion of unions, often citing the dwindling number of unionized workers as the primary reason for the shrinking of America’s middle class. Shortly after his election, Biden relayed that he had explicitly told corporate leaders that he was “a union guy.”
“They just nodded,” he said. “They understand. It’s not anti-business. It’s about economic growth.”
This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.