• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size

Unions predict a Great Awakening during a Biden presidency

Share this post

Labor leaders are eyeing a Joe Biden victory in November as the start of a union revival, one with the potential to undo decades of policies that have diminished union influence, undermined the right to organize and exacerbated income inequality.

And they’re planning on playing a central role.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs clear to me it‚Äôs going to be the most significant pro-labor, pro-worker administration in a long, long, long time,‚ÄĚ said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters ‚ÄĒ the first union to endorse Biden during the Democratic primary.

Reversing America’s decades-long decline in union membership, however, will be a difficult task for even the most labor-friendly administration. Just over 10 percent of workers were represented by unions last year, according to Labor Department data ‚ÄĒ a share that has been cut in half since 1983. And unless Democrats win the Senate as well as the White House, it will be an uphill battle for Biden to move any of the legislation union leaders are advocating for.

Labor officials have reason to be confident, though, that they’ll have a line into the Biden administration, should he win next month’s election. The former vice president and veteran senator has longstanding relationships with union leaders built over more than 40 years in politics.

He’s already named two union presidents ‚ÄĒ Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ‚ÄĒ to his transition team‚Äôs advisory board. At least five others served as members of the unity task forces Biden set up with Sen. Bernie Sanders over the summer, which published formal policy recommendations that helped shape the Democratic Party‚Äôs official platform.

Many expect Biden to appoint a union leader to his Cabinet ‚ÄĒ the Departments of Labor and Education are most often mentioned ‚ÄĒ or in senior positions throughout various agencies. And he has pledged to create a Cabinet-level working group comprised of labor representatives, ‚Äúthat will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining.”

His policy plans across the board are peppered with references to expanding the right to join a union. And senior campaign officials, led by Biden’s longtime confidant and campaign aide Steve Ricchetti, have been holding a biweekly evening call with union leaders to keep them apprised of campaign developments and to allow them to offer their input.

‚ÄúHe‚Äôs doing more of this outreach than any other candidate that I‚Äôve known on the Democratic side,‚ÄĚ said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who has been with his union since the late 1970s. ‚ÄúWhen he talks about organized labor, when he talks about the importance of unions, he really means it.‚ÄĚ

Still, it’s an open question whether the labor movement can convince Biden and his team that it is worth spending the ‚Äúpolitical capital that will have to be spent in order to get major labor law reforms,‚ÄĚ said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary under Bill Clinton.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a chicken and egg problem,‚ÄĚ Reich said. ‚ÄúBecause right now, organized labor doesn‚Äôt have very much clout.‚ÄĚ

And labor allies warn that Biden’s ability to enact changes will depend in large part on whether Democrats regain control of the Senate in November. Pushback from Biden supporters throughout corporate America, employers who might not want to see a resurgence of unions, could also hinder any effort.

That makes the Biden transition preparations, which involve vetting possible Cabinet appointees, plotting out policy priorities and strategizing on how to implement them, a crucial time period.

‚ÄúI‚Äôm very confident that we‚Äôre being afforded and will be afforded an opportunity to offer our view and opinion on key positions and personnel that will become part of the administration,‚ÄĚ Schaitberger said.

Saunders and other union leaders interviewed by POLITICO also said they have been engaged with senior members of Biden’s transition team, and many are preparing policy memos to share with the team if Biden wins. They emphasize their personal ties to the former vice president, and the interactions they’ve had with him, as evidence of how much he will do for them if he wins.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Biden was her union‚Äôs ‚Äúgo-to person‚ÄĚ in the Obama administration, and AFT members are currently engaged with members of his transition team.

Teachers are encouraged by Biden‚Äôs pledge to tap an educator to lead the Department of Education and feel connected to his wife, Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. Construction workers are hopeful about Biden‚Äôs commitment to deliver an infrastructure plan ‚ÄĒ something President Donald Trump promised but failed to produce ‚ÄĒ and to create American jobs in the process, said Sean McGarvey, president of North America‚Äôs Building Trades Union.

From a labor perspective, Biden’s long record is not spotless. He voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement as a senator, a move some union members still hold against him. More recently, as a member of the Obama administration, he’s faced criticism for failing to push through the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.

Share this post

What’s at Stake for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

Share this post

Amer¬≠i¬≠ca is in cri¬≠sis. There can be no doubt about that. All of our imme¬≠di¬≠ate crises‚ÄĒthe pan¬≠dem¬≠ic and the unem¬≠ploy¬≠ment and the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic col¬≠lapse and the death spi¬≠ral of var¬≠i¬≠ous pub¬≠lic insti¬≠tu¬≠tions‚ÄĒhave lent the upcom¬≠ing pres¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial elec¬≠tion an air of emer¬≠gency. For work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca, though, the emer¬≠gency is noth¬≠ing new at all. What is at stake for labor in this elec¬≠tion is every¬≠thing. Noth¬≠ing, there¬≠fore, has¬†changed.¬†

Don¬≠ald Trump and the coro¬≠n¬≠avirus, the two fac¬≠tors infus¬≠ing this elec¬≠tion with urgency, are of recent vin¬≠tage. But the cri¬≠sis for work¬≠ing Amer¬≠i¬≠cans has been grow¬≠ing worse for at least four decades. Since the Rea¬≠gan era, eco¬≠nom¬≠ic inequal¬≠i¬≠ty has been ris¬≠ing, union pow¬≠er has been declin¬≠ing, and glob¬≠al cap¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ism has been widen¬≠ing the chasm between the rich and every¬≠one else. 

Orga¬≠nized labor has been fight¬≠ing a¬†los¬≠ing‚ÄĒand some¬≠times inept¬≠ly fought‚ÄĒbat¬≠tle against these trends in every elec¬≠tion since¬†1980. The once-in-a-cen¬≠tu¬≠ry cat¬≠a¬≠stro¬≠phe sur¬≠round¬≠ing the¬†2020¬†elec¬≠tion may be what it needs to final¬≠ly reverse two gen¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tions of dis¬≠re¬≠spect and¬†defeat.¬†

Labor unions, which rep¬≠re¬≠sent work¬≠ers in a¬†work¬≠place, have always includ¬≠ed peo¬≠ple of all polit¬≠i¬≠cal stripes. The labor¬†move¬≠ment‚ÄĒthe broad¬≠er uni¬≠verse of groups pur¬≠su¬≠ing the inter¬≠ests of work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple‚ÄĒwill con¬≠tin¬≠ue to lean left, in the direc¬≠tion that val¬≠ues labor over cap¬≠i¬≠tal. (See¬≠ing police unions endorse Trump, whose admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion is deter¬≠mined to crush labor rights, is an exam¬≠ple of the fact that indi¬≠vid¬≠ual unions and their mem¬≠bers can act in self-inter¬≠est¬≠ed ways that go against the labor move¬≠ment as a¬†whole.)¬†

For rough¬≠ly the past half cen¬≠tu¬≠ry, union house¬≠holds have tend¬≠ed to vote Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic by about a¬†60‚Äď40¬†mar¬≠gin, but that mar¬≠gin has fluc¬≠tu¬≠at¬≠ed. In¬†1980, Ronald Rea¬≠gan nar¬≠rowed the gap to only a¬†few points. Barack Oba¬≠ma took the union vote by¬†34¬†points in¬†2012, but in¬†2016, that gap shrank by half. Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic pres¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial nom¬≠i¬≠nee Joe Biden, tout¬≠ing his Oba¬≠ma con¬≠nec¬≠tions and fac¬≠ing an out¬≠right incom¬≠pe¬≠tent racist, will like¬≠ly expand that mar¬≠gin¬†again.¬†

Since Con¬≠gress passed the Taft-Hart¬≠ley Act in¬†1947, unions have been oper¬≠at¬≠ing in the¬†frame¬≠work of a¬†set of labor laws¬†designed to rob them of pow¬≠er. The state of those laws today is abysmal. The right to strike is restrict¬≠ed, and com¬≠pa¬≠nies have been able to clas¬≠si¬≠fy large swaths of their work¬≠ers as¬†‚Äúinde¬≠pen¬≠dent con¬≠trac¬≠tors,‚ÄĚ who lack the right to union¬≠ize. More than half the states in the coun¬≠try have passed¬†‚Äúright to work‚ÄĚ laws, which give work¬≠ers the abil¬≠i¬≠ty to opt out of pay¬≠ing union dues, mak¬≠ing it extreme¬≠ly dif¬≠fi¬≠cult for unions to orga¬≠nize and main¬≠tain mem¬≠ber¬≠ship. The¬†2018¬†Supreme Court deci¬≠sion in the¬†Janus v. AFSCME¬†case¬†made the entire pub¬≠lic sec¬≠tor¬†‚Äúright to work‚Ä̬†as well, which is sure to eat into that last bas¬≠tion of strong union den¬≠si¬≠ty. The unful¬≠filled desire to achieve some sem¬≠blance of labor law reform has been the pri¬≠ma¬≠ry rea¬≠son that unions in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca have poured mon¬≠ey into the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Par¬≠ty for decades, despite get¬≠ting decid¬≠ed¬≠ly mod¬≠est leg¬≠isla¬≠tive wins in¬†return.¬†
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs critical that in the new administration, labor doesn‚Äôt just get siloed: ‚ÄėWhat‚Äôs the thing we can do to make the unions happy‚Äô It‚Äôs got to be an approach to looking across everything, especially in light of the economic situation.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒSharon Block, former Labor Department official in the Obama administration

Ear¬≠li¬≠er this year, Sharon Block, a¬†for¬≠mer Labor Depart¬≠ment offi¬≠cial in the Oba¬≠ma admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion who now heads the Labor and Work¬≠life Pro¬≠gram at Har¬≠vard, and labor expert and Har¬≠vard pro¬≠fes¬≠sor Ben¬≠jamin Sachs spear¬≠head¬≠ed the assem¬≠bly of the¬†‚ÄúClean Slate for Work¬≠er Pow¬≠er‚ÄĚ agen¬≠da‚ÄĒsome¬≠thing of a¬†union-friend¬≠ly labor law plat¬≠form for Democ¬≠rats in exile dur¬≠ing the Trump years. That agen¬≠da is a¬†fair sum¬≠ma¬≠tion of the labor movement‚Äôs wish list. It calls for a¬†swath of reforms that make it eas¬≠i¬≠er for all work¬≠ers to orga¬≠nize and exer¬≠cise pow¬≠er. Its pil¬≠lars include sec¬≠toral bar¬≠gain¬≠ing, which would allow entire indus¬≠tries to nego¬≠ti¬≠ate con¬≠tracts at once; a¬†much broad¬≠er right to strike; work¬≠er rep¬≠re¬≠sen¬≠ta¬≠tives on cor¬≠po¬≠rate boards; stream¬≠lined union elec¬≠tions; more labor rights for inde¬≠pen¬≠dent con¬≠trac¬≠tors and oth¬≠er gig work¬≠ers; the end of statewide¬†‚Äúright to work‚ÄĚ laws; and stronger enforce¬≠ment of labor stan¬≠dards. Biden‚Äôs own labor plat¬≠form, while not quite as rad¬≠i¬≠cal‚ÄĒit con¬≠spic¬≠u¬≠ous¬≠ly does not include sec¬≠toral bar¬≠gain¬≠ing‚ÄĒdoes include the major¬≠i¬≠ty of the Clean Slate agen¬≠da. Biden‚Äôs plat¬≠form also says¬†there will be a¬†‚Äúcab¬≠i¬≠net-lev¬≠el work¬≠ing group‚Ä̬†of union rep¬≠re¬≠sen¬≠ta¬≠tives, which could pre¬≠sum¬≠ably push his plat¬≠form even fur¬≠ther left. Though Biden was among the most cen¬≠trist of the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic pri¬≠ma¬≠ry can¬≠di¬≠dates, the party‚Äôs cen¬≠ter has moved so much in the past four years that he has the most left¬≠ist labor plat¬≠form of any nom¬≠i¬≠nee since the New¬†Deal.¬†

While Biden is regard¬≠ed by many as very pro-union, his¬≠to¬≠ry has taught the labor move¬≠ment that its great¬≠est chal¬≠lenge will be get¬≠ting him to actu¬≠al¬≠ly pri¬≠or¬≠i¬≠tize labor if he assumes pow¬≠er.¬†‚ÄúI had the priv¬≠i¬≠lege of see¬≠ing Joe Biden in action. When he walked into a¬†room where we were dis¬≠cussing pol¬≠i¬≠cy, we knew that the inter¬≠ests of work¬≠ers, their col¬≠lec¬≠tive pow¬≠er, and the labor move¬≠ment was going to be on the table,‚ÄĚ Block says. But, she warns,¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs crit¬≠i¬≠cal that in the new admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion, labor doesn‚Äôt just get siloed:¬†‚ÄėWhat‚Äôs the thing we can do to make the unions hap¬≠py‚Äô It‚Äôs got to be an approach to look¬≠ing across every¬≠thing, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly in light of the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic¬†situation.‚ÄĚ

In oth¬≠er words, the new admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion must treat orga¬≠nized labor not as a¬†spe¬≠cial inter¬≠est but as the key to chang¬≠ing our increas¬≠ing¬≠ly two-tiered econ¬≠o¬≠my. That point is key to under¬≠stand¬≠ing the divide between the part of the labor move¬≠ment that sup¬≠port¬≠ed left-wing can¬≠di¬≠dates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Eliz¬≠a¬≠beth War¬≠ren (D-Mass.), and those that sup¬≠port¬≠ed Biden. While Sanders‚Äô back¬≠ers will speak of his fanat¬≠i¬≠cal moral devo¬≠tion to pro-work¬≠ing class pol¬≠i¬≠cy, Biden‚Äôs allies will speak of the per¬≠son¬≠al rela¬≠tion¬≠ship they have with him. It is the divide between those who see unions more as part of a¬†greater effort to improve con¬≠di¬≠tions for all work¬≠ers, and those who see them more as a¬†prac¬≠ti¬≠cal tool for mem¬≠bers.¬†‚ÄúJoe Biden had an open door pol¬≠i¬≠cy. That was the biggest thing. That was the crux of the rela¬≠tion¬≠ship,‚ÄĚ says a¬†spokesper¬≠son for the Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al Asso¬≠ci¬≠a¬≠tion of Fire Fight¬≠ers, the first big union to endorse Biden when he entered the¬†2020¬†race.¬†‚ÄúWith Joe Biden at the White House, our voice is heard. We get pri¬≠or¬≠i¬≠ty¬†access.‚ÄĚ

This trans¬≠ac¬≠tion¬≠al, loy¬≠al¬≠ty-cen¬≠tric approach is unsur¬≠pris¬≠ing for a¬†career politi¬≠cian like Biden, but it can leave out labor lead¬≠ers who don‚Äôt have such a¬†long his¬≠to¬≠ry of back¬≠ing him. Most major unions did not endorse in the¬†2020¬†Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic pri¬≠ma¬≠ry, pre¬≠fer¬≠ring to focus on back¬≠ing who¬≠ev¬≠er became the nom¬≠i¬≠nee to oppose Trump. And Biden‚ÄĒthough he has many union allies‚ÄĒis not a¬†cru¬≠sad¬≠er, but a¬†politi¬≠cian with decades of strong cor¬≠po¬≠rate back¬≠ing, lead¬≠ing many in labor to won¬≠der how much he real¬≠ly¬†means¬†what his plat¬≠form says. The Biden cam¬≠paign tried to mit¬≠i¬≠gate that wor¬≠ry by includ¬≠ing mul¬≠ti¬≠ple pro¬≠gres¬≠sive union lead¬≠ers in the Biden-Sanders¬†‚ÄúUni¬≠ty Task Force,‚ÄĚ which was explic¬≠it¬≠ly set up to uni¬≠fy the left and cen¬≠trist wings of the par¬≠ty, in part by get¬≠ting pro¬≠gres¬≠sive poli¬≠cies into the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic plat¬≠form. That task force prod¬≠ded Biden mod¬≠est¬≠ly to the left but not so far as to endorse core pro¬≠gres¬≠sive ideas like Medicare for All. The unions clos¬≠est to Biden, par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠ly the fire¬≠fight¬≠ers, are opposed to Medicare for All because they want to keep the health¬≠care plans they nego¬≠ti¬≠at¬≠ed for¬†themselves.

The biggest labor unions often have strong pro¬≠gres¬≠sive fac¬≠tions but most¬≠ly plant them¬≠selves firm¬≠ly in the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Party‚Äôs main¬≠stream. In fact, four major union lead¬≠ers who serve on the plat¬≠form com¬≠mit¬≠tee of the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Nation¬≠al Com¬≠mit¬≠tee vot¬≠ed against includ¬≠ing Medicare for All in the party‚Äôs plat¬≠form. One was Ran¬≠di Wein¬≠garten, pres¬≠i¬≠dent of the Amer¬≠i¬≠can Fed¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion of Teach¬≠ers, who also served on the Biden-Sanders Uni¬≠ty Task Force. She says the DNC plat¬≠form vote was a result of a pri¬≠or agree¬≠ment among those on the Uni¬≠ty Task Force to vote for its rec¬≠om¬≠men¬≠da¬≠tions, in the way you might vote for a union con¬≠tract that was imper¬≠fect but the best you could get.

The wretched¬≠ness of the Trump admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion has pushed unions to view the elec¬≠tion as a¬†mat¬≠ter of sur¬≠vival.¬†‚ÄúWhat Trump has done with his abysmal han¬≠dling of Covid, and his even worse han¬≠dling of racism, is to have sobered up every¬≠one that this is an elec¬≠tion like no oth¬≠er,‚ÄĚ Wein¬≠garten says.¬†‚ÄúThat this elec¬≠tion needs to be won by Biden to make sure that our democ¬≠ra¬≠cy, as imper¬≠fect as it is, stays in place. ‚Ķ Yes, it‚Äôs aspi¬≠ra¬≠tional about how we need to do bet¬≠ter. But it‚Äôs also very pri¬≠mal, about what the stakes are right¬†now.‚Ä̬†

The bru¬≠tal real¬≠i¬≠ties of the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic mean that many unions are forced to focus on their imme¬≠di¬≠ate needs more than on long-term ide¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal goals. In the Feb¬≠ru¬≠ary run-up to the Neva¬≠da cau¬≠cus, Joe Biden and the oth¬≠er Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic pri¬≠ma¬≠ry can¬≠di¬≠dates bat¬≠tled to win the endorse¬≠ment of the pow¬≠er¬≠ful Culi¬≠nary Union, which has orga¬≠nized the state‚Äôs casi¬≠no indus¬≠try. (The union ulti¬≠mate¬≠ly did not endorse, and Bernie Sanders won the cau¬≠cus.) Less than two months lat¬≠er, the unem¬≠ploy¬≠ment rate for the union‚Äôs mem¬≠bers was close to 100%. Geo¬≠con¬≠da Arg√ľel¬≠lo-Kline, the union‚Äôs sec¬≠re¬≠tary-trea¬≠sur¬≠er, says the pres¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial elec¬≠tion is now framed in relent¬≠less¬≠ly prac¬≠ti¬≠cal terms: The refusal of Repub¬≠li¬≠cans to deal with the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic and the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic cri¬≠sis show that only Biden can make the gov¬≠ern¬≠ment sup¬≠port work¬≠place safe¬≠ty leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion, pro¬≠tect health insur¬≠ance and pen¬≠sions, and fund ade¬≠quate unem¬≠ploy¬≠ment ben¬≠e¬≠fits until Las Vegas is back on its feet. 

‚ÄúThe gov¬≠ern¬≠ment real¬≠ly has to pro¬≠vide every¬≠thing that the work¬≠ers need dur¬≠ing this pan¬≠dem¬≠ic,‚ÄĚ Arg√ľel¬≠lo-Kline says. Her union is adapt¬≠ing its leg¬≠endary get-out-the-vote machine for a¬†social¬≠ly dis¬≠tanced era, rely¬≠ing on phone bank¬≠ing, text mes¬≠sag¬≠ing and dig¬≠i¬≠tal com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tion more than door-knock¬≠ing and ral¬≠lies. She‚Äôs con¬≠fi¬≠dent that Trump will not car¬≠ry Neva¬≠da.¬†‚ÄúEvery¬≠body in the coun¬≠try sees how he‚Äôs being oppres¬≠sive to minori¬≠ties over here. How he‚Äôs attack¬≠ing the Lati¬≠no com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty. How he doesn‚Äôt want to have any¬≠body in this coun¬≠try who doesn‚Äôt look like him,‚ÄĚ she says.¬†‚ÄúWe know work¬≠ers nev¬≠er have an easy¬†road.‚Ä̬†

Across the coun¬≠try, unions that typ¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly would be spend¬≠ing the sum¬≠mer and fall months focused on elec¬≠tion¬≠eer¬≠ing are forced to bal¬≠ance that with the work of triag¬≠ing the needs of mem¬≠bers fac¬≠ing very real life-and-death sit¬≠u¬≠a¬≠tions. The Retail, Whole¬≠sale and Depart¬≠ment Store Union rep¬≠re¬≠sents front-line retail work¬≠ers who have been sub¬≠ject¬≠ed to wide¬≠spread lay¬≠offs that now appear to be per¬≠ma¬≠nent. It also rep¬≠re¬≠sents poul¬≠try plant work¬≠ers in the South who have con¬≠tin¬≠ued to work through¬≠out the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic with des¬≠per¬≠ate short¬≠ages of pro¬≠tec¬≠tive equip¬≠ment. It is hard to tell whether the work¬≠ing mem¬≠bers or the unem¬≠ployed mem¬≠bers of the union face more dan¬≠ger. Stu¬≠art Appel¬≠baum, the union‚Äôs pres¬≠i¬≠dent, has been a mem¬≠ber of the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Nation¬≠al Com¬≠mit¬≠tee for decades, but he has nev¬≠er dealt with an elec¬≠tion year that com¬≠bines such dire cir¬≠cum¬≠stances for work¬≠ers with such logis¬≠ti¬≠cal chal¬≠lenges to mobi¬≠lize them to fight. 

If there is any sil¬≠ver lin¬≠ing, it is that the val¬≠ue of unions is clear¬≠er than ever before. Their pub¬≠lic pop¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠i¬≠ty is near a¬†50-year high. Trump‚Äôs car¬≠toon¬≠ish class war lent the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic pri¬≠maries a¬†strong pro-union fla¬≠vor, and the work¬≠place inequal¬≠i¬≠ty exposed by the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic has only sharp¬≠ened the recog¬≠ni¬≠tion of the need for work¬≠place pro¬≠tec¬≠tions.¬†‚ÄúWe heard more talk about unions and sup¬≠port of unions than we‚Äôve heard in any oth¬≠er cam¬≠paign that I¬†can remem¬≠ber,‚ÄĚ Appel¬≠baum says.¬†‚ÄúThere is more of a¬†recog¬≠ni¬≠tion in the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Par¬≠ty now and in soci¬≠ety as a¬†whole as to the impor¬≠tance of work¬≠ers hav¬≠ing a¬†col¬≠lec¬≠tive voice. I¬†remem¬≠ber when Bill Clin¬≠ton was first elect¬≠ed, and I‚Äôd go to union meet¬≠ings where peo¬≠ple would say,¬†‚ÄėIs the pres¬≠i¬≠dent ever going to men¬≠tion the word union?‚Äô That‚Äôs not a¬†ques¬≠tion we have¬†now.‚Ä̬†

That, of course, is no guar¬≠an¬≠tee that things will work out in unions‚Äô favor. The right wing‚Äôs long attack on orga¬≠nized labor has sapped some of the basic abil¬≠i¬≠ty of unions to exer¬≠cise pow¬≠er. No employ¬≠ees have been more direct¬≠ly sub¬≠ject¬≠ed to that attack than the work¬≠ers of the fed¬≠er¬≠al gov¬≠ern¬≠ment itself. The Amer¬≠i¬≠can Fed¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion of Gov¬≠ern¬≠ment Employ¬≠ees has butted heads with the Trump admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion inces¬≠sant¬≠ly over issues such as the lack of pay¬≠checks dur¬≠ing the gov¬≠ern¬≠ment shut¬≠down, efforts to take away col¬≠lec¬≠tive bar¬≠gain¬≠ing rights from hun¬≠dreds of thou¬≠sands of employ¬≠ees at the Defense Depart¬≠ment, and work¬≠ers at fed¬≠er¬≠al agen¬≠cies being forced back into the office before the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic is under control. 

‚ÄúFor us, this elec¬≠tion isn‚Äôt about par¬≠ty affil¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion. It‚Äôs not about the dai¬≠ly out¬≠rages from Twit¬≠ter. It‚Äôs about our very liveli¬≠hoods. It‚Äôs about our rights and our lives at work,‚ÄĚ says Everett Kel¬≠ley, pres¬≠i¬≠dent of the¬†700,000-member union.¬†‚ÄúThe issues that our mem¬≠bers are fac¬≠ing are real¬≠ly the same issues that face labor as a¬†whole‚ÄĒour mem¬≠bers just work in a¬†sec¬≠tor where the Trump admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion has the widest lat¬≠i¬≠tude to imple¬≠ment its anti-labor poli¬≠cies. But there‚Äôs no doubt that they want to export their union-bust¬≠ing play¬≠book from the fed¬≠er¬≠al gov¬≠ern¬≠ment to the broad¬≠er pub¬≠lic and pri¬≠vate¬†sectors.‚Ä̬†

All of the mon¬≠ey, email blasts and vir¬≠tu¬≠al get¬≠ting-out-the-vote that unions are engaged in on behalf of the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Par¬≠ty will, if suc¬≠cess¬≠ful, result in mil¬≠lions of mail-in bal¬≠lots. And all of it will be worth¬≠less if those bal¬≠lots are not deliv¬≠ered and count¬≠ed prop¬≠er¬≠ly. Sav¬≠ing the post office‚ÄĒand, who knows, per¬≠haps democ¬≠ra¬≠cy itself‚ÄĒis a¬†job that has fall¬≠en in the lap of the labor move¬≠ment. Unions have been key play¬≠ers in pub¬≠li¬≠ciz¬≠ing the threat to the postal ser¬≠vice. They have ral¬≠lied polit¬≠i¬≠cal sup¬≠port behind postal work¬≠ers and the pop¬≠u¬≠lar insti¬≠tu¬≠tion as a¬†whole. What may have been seen as just anoth¬≠er under¬≠fund¬≠ed gov¬≠ern¬≠ment agency a¬†few years ago is now an avatar of every¬≠thing wrong with¬†Trumpism.

The U.S. Postal Ser¬≠vice is, like many oth¬≠er insti¬≠tu¬≠tions, fac¬≠ing a pan¬≠dem¬≠ic-induced loss of rev¬≠enue. It is also the tar¬≠get of the Repub¬≠li¬≠can Party‚Äôs long-term desire to pri¬≠va¬≠tize mail deliv¬≠ery and allow cor¬≠po¬≠ra¬≠tions to take over its oper¬≠a¬≠tions. Add to that the president‚Äôs appar¬≠ent desire to sab¬≠o¬≠tage the postal ser¬≠vice before the elec¬≠tion to pre¬≠vent mail-in bal¬≠lots from being count¬≠ed, and sud¬≠den¬≠ly, the hum¬≠ble post office finds itself at the cen¬≠ter of a nation‚Äôs sense that the entire gov¬≠ern¬≠ment may be tee¬≠ter¬≠ing on the edge of irre¬≠triev¬≠able corruption. 

‚ÄúPri¬≠va¬≠ti¬≠za¬≠tion usu¬≠al¬≠ly means three things. It means high¬≠er prices for the con¬≠sumer, less ser¬≠vices, and low¬≠er wages and ben¬≠e¬≠fits for the work¬≠ers,‚ÄĚ says Mark Dimond¬≠stein, head of the¬†200,000-member Amer¬≠i¬≠can Postal Work¬≠ers Union.¬†‚ÄúThis is cer¬≠tain¬≠ly the fork in the road of whether we‚Äôre going to have a¬†pub¬≠lic insti¬≠tu¬≠tion that belongs to every¬≠body, serves every¬≠body and is the source of good, liv¬≠ing-wage union jobs‚ÄĒor a¬†pri¬≠va¬≠tized, bro¬≠ken-up gig econ¬≠o¬≠my postal¬†service.‚ÄĚ

With tens of mil¬≠lions of Amer¬≠i¬≠cans unem¬≠ployed, a¬†dead¬≠ly dis¬≠ease rag¬≠ing and an incum¬≠bent pres¬≠i¬≠dent who appears not to care very much about either cri¬≠sis, unions and their allies find them¬≠selves pushed into a¬†famil¬≠iar cor¬≠ner: Fight like hell for the less-than-ide¬≠al Demo¬≠c¬≠rat‚ÄĒmain¬≠ly because there is no alter¬≠na¬≠tive. Joe Biden is an imper¬≠fect ally. His record is busi¬≠ness-friend¬≠ly, and his labor plat¬≠form, though strong in the¬≠o¬≠ry, is not as aggres¬≠sive as those of some of his pri¬≠ma¬≠ry rivals. Labor move¬≠ment vet¬≠er¬≠ans remem¬≠ber¬†2008¬†well, when the Oba¬≠ma admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion swept in with promise but failed to deliv¬≠er on the Employ¬≠ee Free Choice Act, which would have enabled¬†‚Äúcard check‚ÄĚ orga¬≠niz¬≠ing (a method of form¬≠ing a¬†union with a¬†sim¬≠ple major¬≠i¬≠ty vote) and was labor‚Äôs main (rel¬≠a¬≠tive¬≠ly mod¬≠est) wish. Biden is sell¬≠ing him¬≠self as Obama‚Äôs suc¬≠ces¬≠sor. It is up to the labor move¬≠ment to ensure that a¬†Biden admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion does not take them for¬†granted.

‚ÄúWe have to look at a¬†Biden vic¬≠to¬≠ry not as an end to our work, but a¬†begin¬≠ning,‚ÄĚ Dimond¬≠stein says.¬†‚ÄúThe his¬≠to¬≠ry of this coun¬≠try is, it‚Äôs always been the peo¬≠ple and the move¬≠ment, includ¬≠ing the work¬≠ing class move¬≠ment, that have cre¬≠at¬≠ed change in Con¬≠gress. Not the oppo¬≠site¬†way.‚ÄĚ

That, in fact, is the task that the labor move¬≠ment‚ÄĒshrunk¬≠en, bat¬≠tered and divid¬≠ed though it is‚ÄĒshould be pour¬≠ing most of its ener¬≠gy into, even now. Union den¬≠si¬≠ty in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca has fall¬≠en by half since the ear¬≠ly¬†1980s. Bare¬≠ly one in¬†10¬†work¬≠ers are now union mem¬≠bers. That exis¬≠ten¬≠tial decline must be turned around, or labor will nev¬≠er have enough pow¬≠er to win the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic and polit¬≠i¬≠cal gains that work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple need. No new pres¬≠i¬≠dent can do this for the labor move¬≠ment‚ÄĒthey can only remove some bar¬≠ri¬≠ers to make it eas¬≠i¬≠er for the move¬≠ment to do it for¬†itself.

Biden¬†looks strong in the polls, but there is no cer¬≠tain¬≠ty about what lies ahead. Few union lead¬≠ers want to engage seri¬≠ous¬≠ly with the ques¬≠tion of what hap¬≠pens if Trump wins. The answer is always some vari¬≠a¬≠tion of¬†‚ÄúJust keep fight¬≠ing.‚ÄĚ But anoth¬≠er four years of Trump would be grim, and sur¬≠viv¬≠ing it would require a¬†fero¬≠cious turn toward rad¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ism. After¬†2016, some fac¬≠tions of the union world toyed with the the¬≠o¬≠ry that the way to meet the moment was to cater to the minor¬≠i¬≠ty of¬†‚Äúwhite work¬≠ing class‚ÄĚ union mem¬≠bers who felt left behind and embraced Trump. That approach was always flawed‚ÄĒTrump‚Äôs base is the upper, not low¬≠er class‚ÄĒand sub¬≠se¬≠quent events have ren¬≠dered it a¬†moot point. The labor move¬≠ment has loud¬≠ly allied itself with Black Lives Mat¬≠ter and pledged to join the fight for social jus¬≠tice. Liv¬≠ing up to that pledge means mak¬≠ing a¬†choice to oppose Trump. If he is reelect¬≠ed, orga¬≠nized labor should expect to be one of many tar¬≠gets of his¬†vindictiveness.

All of which points to the fact that nei¬≠ther elec¬≠tion out¬≠come will mean auto¬≠mat¬≠ic sal¬≠va¬≠tion for work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple. The past 40 years of his¬≠to¬≠ry demon¬≠strate that. Con¬≠trol of the White House has gone back and forth, but through it all, the rich have got¬≠ten rich¬≠er, the wages of work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple have stag¬≠nat¬≠ed, union den¬≠si¬≠ty has declined and labor law has remained bro¬≠ken. The worst-case sce¬≠nario for the labor move¬≠ment is to see more of the same.

‚ÄúI don‚Äôt real¬≠ly look to the Democ¬≠rats for lead¬≠er¬≠ship; I¬†look to the labor move¬≠ment,‚ÄĚ says Sara Nel¬≠son, the head of the Asso¬≠ci¬≠a¬≠tion of Flight Atten¬≠dants and one of labor‚Äôs most promi¬≠nent pro¬≠gres¬≠sive voic¬≠es.¬†‚ÄúAnd we have the pow¬≠er to change this right now if we choose to do so. That pow¬≠er is not an appendage of the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Par¬≠ty. It‚Äôs our labor. It‚Äôs our sol¬≠i¬≠dar¬≠i¬≠ty,‚ÄĚ she says.¬†‚ÄúAs long as we out¬≠source our pow¬≠er to politi¬≠cians, we are nev¬≠er, ever going to get what work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple¬†need.‚ÄĚ

The views expressed above are the authors‚Äô own. As a 501¬©3 non¬≠prof¬≠it, In These Times does not sup¬≠port or oppose can¬≠di¬≠dates for polit¬≠i¬≠cal office.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

Share this post

As Unions Read the Tea Leaves, Retail Workers Union Locals Rush to Endorse Biden

Share this post

Image result for Hamilton Nolan

Joe Biden’s stronger-than-expected performance on Super Tuesday may be tempting some unions that have sat on the sideline through the Democratic primary to fall in behind a candidate they now perceive to be the likely winner. This morning, a slew of locals of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU) endorsed Biden, and the union telegraphed its support for Biden’s campaign.

Like many major unions, the RWDSU, which has about 100,000 members nationwide, has not issued a national endorsement in the Democratic primary. Stuart Appelbaum, the head of the RWDSU, is on the executive committee of the DNC. In many unions that did not issue national endorsements, locals issued their own endorsements‚ÄĒBernie Sanders picked up dozens. But in the same way that Hillary Clinton picked up the majority of union endorsements in 2016 despite Sanders having a stronger history of labor support, unions now may be reading the political tea leaves and jump in to back Biden if they think he will be the eventual nominee.

This morning, six separate RWDSU local or councils all announced that they are endorsing Biden. They are the RWDSU Southeast Council, representing 10,000 workers in the Southeastern United States; the RWDSU Tennessee District Council; RWDSU Local 108 in Newark, New Jersey; RWDSU Local 262 in Kenilworth, New Jersey; RWDSU Local 379 in Columbus, Ohio; and RWDSU Local 390 in Columbus, Ohio.

Notably, all of the endorsement press releases were packaged and sent out sent out to the media by the national office. Chelsea Connor, RWDSU communications director, told In These Times, ‚ÄúMany of our members believe Joe Biden provides the best chance to defeat Donald Trump and support the under-ticket. We haven‚Äôt endorsed yet, but encouraged our locals and councils to let their voices be heard. We also aren‚Äôt aware of any other local or council supporting other candidates in the RWDSU.‚ÄĚ

Union endorsements of Joe Biden have not been without controversy. Last month, more than 1,200 IBEW members who supported Bernie Sanders issued a letter asking their leadership to retract its endorsement of Biden. (Sanders today announced he was endorsed by the president and vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, though the union itself did not endorse anyone.)

In an election year that featured a crowded field of Democratic candidates, many of whom put out extraordinarily pro-union platforms, sitting out the primary and endorsing the eventual Democratic nominee has been considered the wise move by the majority of major unions. As the contest appears to have narrowed to Bernie vs. Biden going into Michigan next week, union support has become more critical than ever for both candidates. It is possible that today marks the beginning of a slew of unions making the common calculation that Biden is going to win, and now is the time to endorse him, while they still believe they can win political points for it.

In 2016, many Sanders supporters in the labor movement were angry when major unions made a similar calculation and backed Hillary Clinton, only to see Donald Trump win. Time will tell if that calculation is more successful in 2020.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog


  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness


Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.