As the Democrats take control of the White House and both houses of Congress amid overlapping national crises, labor leaders say it is now more critical than ever that Washington deliver significant material gains for the working class.
Democrats partly owe their recent electoral victories in places like Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia to the extensive get-out-the-vote efforts of unions like UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which reached millions of Black and Latino voters.
After defeating Donald Trump and the Republicans at the polls, the labor movement does not intend to rest on its laurels.
âWeâre not going to stop the campaign just because the election is done,â D. Taylor, international president of UNITE HERE, told In These Times. ?âWe have to hold Democrats accountable. We will go to the same voters they made promises to and point out whether they have lived up to those promises or not. They can no longer blame the Republicans. Itâs right on their shoulders.â
President Joe Biden, who calls himself a ?âunion guy,â has signaled his intention to work with organized labor by tapping Boston mayor Marty Walsh to be his Labor Secretary. A former official in the Laborersâ Union Local 223, Walsh was the AFL-CIOâs preferred choice for the Cabinet position, though many progressive unionists and Transport Workers Union president John Samuelson wanted Sen. Bernie Sanders in the role.
Further, in his proposed $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, Biden has included a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour?â?something service sector workers led by SEIU and other unions have famously been fighting for since 2012.
Besides delivering immediate economic relief and getting the pandemic under control, labor leaders want the Biden administration to quickly reverse the various anti-worker measures that Trump and his Department of Labor enacted, like reducing the number of workers eligible for overtime pay and restricting the collective bargaining rights of federal employees.
They are also counting on the new president to appoint union-friendly members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There is one vacancy on the Board right now, and another is set to open in August when the term of one of the current Republican members is set to expire. That means, assuming Biden makes nominations that swiftly get confirmed by the Senate, Democrats should hold a majority on the Board by late summer.
In the meantime, unions like SEIU are pressuring Biden to immediately fire NLRB general counsel Peter Robb?â?a notorious union buster appointed by Trump.
In his powerful position at the Board, Robb has worked to make sure McDonaldâs canât be held legally responsible for labor violations carried out by its franchises, attacked neutrality agreements that restrict employer interference in unionization drives, and even tried to outlaw Scabby the Rat.
âSwift action is required. Robb must go,â SEIU president Mary Kay Henry tweeted last week.
In addition to making demands on Biden, labor leaders are also seeking bold moves from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
âWhile there are immediate actions that Joe Biden and his Department of Labor can take to support worker organizing and to protect collective action, the transformative change we need requires action by Congress,â said Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).
The CWA is part of a growing coalition of unions, state labor federations, worker centers, and progressive groups led by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) that is mobilizing to ensure Congress passes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.
The PRO Act would dramatically reform private sector labor law by removing the many corporate-friendly legal obstacles to unionizing and striking. Publicly supported by Biden and Walsh, the legislation was passed last year by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, only to go nowhere in the Republican-dominated Senate.
In the aftermath of the November election and Georgia runoff, the IUPAT-led coalition has launched a campaign pushing for passage of the bill.
In 2009, the last time Democrats simultaneously controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they failed to accomplish a similar attempt at labor law reform?â?the Employee Free Choice Act?â?despite campaigning on a promise to pass it. Union leaders are aiming to avoid a repeat of that disappointment.
âThe labor movement should be doing something we didnât do the last time around, and thatâs push like hell and not expect people who say the right thing to do the right thing,â Taylor said.
âThe trap we fell into with the Employee Free Choice Act was taking their support for granted and just waiting to see how the process unfolded,â explained Ryan Kekeris, IUPATâs communications director. ?âWeâre doing the opposite here. Weâre calling the question and making this a priority from day one. Weâre building a grassroots, decentralized movement that can mobilize people and pressure politicians.â
âWe know that if a fight stays in the halls of Washington, D.C., those fights end up losing a lot of the time,â said IUPAT general vice president Jim Williams. ?âWe have to take the fight outside of Washington, D.C. and into our congressional districts, into the states, into our communities.â
At a townhall hosted by the IUPAT last Thursday, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the PRO Act must be brought to Joe Bidenâs desk this year ?âcome hell or high water.â
âThis time has to be different,â Trumka said. ?âWe canât be at the back of the train; we have to be at the front of this train.â
Unionists agree that to have any hope of securing sweeping legislation, partnerships must be forged with other progressive movements, including those organizing around racial justice, immigrant rights, and climate action.
âWe need to unite with others who are in motion,â explained Carl Rosen, general president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). ?âA big advantage relative to 2009 when Obama came in is there wasnât nearly the level of mobilized action going on in the country then as there is now.â
A key partner in the IUPATâs campaign to pass the PRO Act is the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which is at the forefront of the fight for a Green New Deal.
âWeâre definitely serious about the ?âGreenâ part of that, and weâre equally serious the ?âNew Dealâ part,â Lauren Maunus, the Sunrise Movementâs legislative manager and a member of CWA Local 1180, said at last Thursdayâs townhall. ?âAmerica needs labor law reform on a scale unseen since the original New Deal.â
Labor leaders stress that it will also be necessary to organize outside of progressive and liberal circles, especially since some 40% of union households voted for Trump.
âWe have to get to that section of the working class that weâve stopped talking to, and that have instead been wooed away by the Right because they havenât seen any solutions being offered to them,â said Rosen.
âIâm not talking about trying to bring dyed-in-the-wool, super right-wing racist white nationalists over and make them our allies. Far from it,â he added. ?âBut they have influence over an awful lot of people because weâve failed as labor and progressive movements to get an alternative out there for folks to be part of and to feel like it can make a difference for them.â
âMany union members are rightfully skeptical of electoral politics. Many turned to Trump for that very reason?â?he promised a break from politics as usual,â Williams of IUPAT recently wrote for In These Times. ?âFor decades, our members have been sold false promisesâŚ Our standards of living have fallen and despite promises from Washington, nothing has changed.â
Through organizing conversations with its membership, the IUPAT found that the PRO Act is popular with rank-and-file members across the political spectrum, including those who voted for Trump. ?âThis is an issue that unites working people regardless of political party affiliation,â Kekeris said.
Rosen contends that another issue with the potential to win over workers who typically vote Republican is Medicare for All.
âPeople like Medicare, including rural and working-class folks who might otherwise be convinced by right-wing propaganda to be anti-government. We need to build on that,â Rosen explained.
Taylor, whose unionâs diverse membership includes people from all over the world, said that comprehensive immigration reform must be ?âfront and center.â Biden reportedly plans to send a bill to Congress soon that would offer a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
For its part, the Teamsters union is launching a campaign to push for implementation of multiple federal policy priorities, including strengthening pensions and ending the misclassification of workers as ?âindependent contractors.â
Beyond mobilizing working-class voters to hold elected officials accountable, unions expect to continue waging workplace struggles to protect workersâ health and safety in the pandemic and to safeguard wages and benefits amid the recession.
As Rand Wilson and Peter Olney recently wrote in Labor Notes, this year alone, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering over 1.5 million union workers will expire, opening the door to contract campaigns and potential strikes that offer ?âan ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining.â
âIt would be very, very good for unions to engage in as many militant workplace-based fights as possible,â Rosen said.Â ?âIn the end, to win serious change in this country, weâre going to have to convince the folks in the capitalist structure that theyâre better off giving some concessions to us rather than ignore our protests or attempt to repress them, that theyâve got too much to lose if they donât give in to some substantialÂ degree.â
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been aÂ Working In These Times contributor sinceÂ 2013. He has aÂ Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and aÂ Masterâs in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst.Â