The president is hoping his political fate — and the Democrats’ standing among the white working class — can be saved by lifting up organized labor.
Joe Biden has long identified as a proud union man, having cultivated relationships with top labor leaders over decades in Washington. Now, with his presidency facing intense peril, Biden is hoping those bonds and that image can lift his fortunes in time for the midterms.
Biden is leaning into his association with organized labor more aggressively than any president in modern times. Over the last few weeks alone, he’s warned major businesses that their workforces will seek to unionize, with his support. He has backed a push on Capitol Hill that is paving the way for congressional staffers to unionize. He recently met with a new generation of union organizers at the White House and put out a video of the meeting on Wednesday in which he jokingly told one of the organizers he was “[good] trouble.”
Meanwhile, independent labor regulators molded by Biden have validated accusations that Starbucks and Amazon violated labor laws. The National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday also petitioned a court to reinstate seven former Starbucks workers it believes were wrongly fired — its third lawsuit against the company in less than a month. On Wednesday afternoon, Biden returned to yet another house of labor for a speech in Chicago to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers International convention. Biden broadly focused on how his legislative and economic agenda — particularly the sweeping bipartisan infrastructure bill — is reshaping the country and its workforce. But he also laid into Republicans and their “great MAGA king” Donald Trump for working to advance policies that favor the wealthy.
“There’s the expression where I come from. ‘You go home with them that brung you the dance.’ You all brought me to the dance,” Biden told the crowd of electrical workers.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told POLITICO that Biden is “the most pro-worker, pro-union president in at least a generation.” Several others agreed.
“When was the last time you saw the president open up the doors to the White House to welcome in workers, particularly workers that are part of a burgeoning movement for industries that have not historically been organized and that right now are capturing the public’s imagination about unionism,” said April Verrett, vice president of SEIU International and chair of the SEIU Home Care Council.
Biden’s moves to polish his union credentials amount to a bold bet that appeals to working Americans on economic grounds can help offset some of the damage Democrats are dealing with among the cohort when it comes to rising prices and blazing culture wars. Republicans have traditionally opposed the union movement but under President Donald Trump, the party made strides among white, working-class voters. Biden, in trying to make unions a proxy for workers generally, is hoping to arrest that trend.
The strategy is not without some political risk, however. Major corporations pushing back against unionization efforts in their workforces have expressed their dismay to the White House, both publicly and privately. And support for union drives is not a universally shared sentiment among voters. Some economists also fear that Biden’s eagerness to present himself as a consummate and unwavering ally of organized labor may limit policies in his portfolio to combat inflation. In particular, he has been pressed to reconsider trade tariffs with China to help ease supply chain issues.
“I can’t think of a better time in the job market to be lifting the tariffs. There are a record number of job openings; the unemployment rate is extremely low and if it succeeds in taking pressure off the Fed that would help with jobs in other sectors of the economy,” said Jason Furman, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama.
Furman said he didn’t think lifting the tariffs would cost many jobs, at least directly. “It’s also very plausible that China would reciprocate and lower tariffs if we did this. So, in assessing the economics of this, it’s a win if the United States does it, it’s an even bigger win if China follows suit,” he said.
Recent studies estimate the administration could shave more than a percentage point off of inflation with even a modest rollback of tariffs — a sizable chunk given the president’s relative inability to move the numbers downward quickly. And Biden told reporters on Tuesday that he’s evaluating the Trump-era tariffs: “We’re looking at what would have the most positive impact.”
But so far, the White House has been resistant to action, privately harboring concerns that lifting additional tariffs would be seen as taking a softer approach to China in addition to complicating their push for strengthening domestic manufacturing.
“It may cause problems with labor,” said Robert J. Shapiro, chairman of the economic advisory firm Sonecon, and former director of the International Monetary Fund and U.S. undersecretary of Commerce. “But the problems are really, largely physiological. And they are really nostalgic” given the actual impact on specific jobs.
Progressives say that Biden’s increasingly aggressive pro-union push is a winning hand— or the least of the limited ones at his immediate disposal. The president has been attuned to their concerns since the early months of his term, starting with a video he released last year effectively supporting Amazon warehouse workers’ union drive. He also dispatched Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to the picket line in Pennsylvania and issued statements late last year supporting Kellogg’s employees who were in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations and having their jobs threatened. The invitation of Amazon and Starbucks workers to the White House last week came after yet more private urgings for him to show solidarity.
“It’s the right economic argument to make,” said Faiz Shakir, a top adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and founder of More Perfect Union, which has been in regular touch with the White House on unionization efforts and protections. “But also it’s the right political medicine for the White House at this moment.”
Shakir said Biden’s demonstration of solidarity with the organizers served as a good contrast to Republicans. “You want to tip the hat to those doing the work,” he said. “And it’s telling that not a single Republican has come forward and supported organizing workers.”
Union officials say the bipartisan infrastructure package Biden talked up in Chicago to the IBEW laid new ground for boosting job quality and worker rights. At one point, Biden paused to note that the vast majority of the funding in the bill was subject to federal requirements that require workers to earn a prevailing wage. A flurry of presidential executive actions have also dealt with raising wages and protecting federal workers.
But labor’s top priority legislation — the PRO Act, a bill to extend protections for workers organizing and curb companies from impeding on membership campaigns that are heavily opposed by businesses and Republicans — remains stalled in the Senate. And unions and their Hill allies still hope to revive aspects of the president’s social and climate spending legislation, on everything from bolstering home and child care to imposing penalties on employers who violate workers’ rights to organize, bargain and strike.
For now, many want Biden to continue to look for opportunities to issue executive orders.
Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who introduced the resolution granting thousands of House staffers the right to unionize, said he wants the administration to follow through on task force recommendations to help workers unionize and bargain, including the federal workforce.
And while he lauded NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo as the most “proactive and creative” person he’s seen in the post, Levin said he’s personally expressed impatience about the speed of elections at Starbucks in particular. Some workers have waited “way too long” for what he described as “cookie-cutter” organizing drives.
“Starbucks should not be allowed to [act] as if, ‘Oh, we’ll litigate each one,’” he said.
Others pro-labor voices, meanwhile, want Biden to go even further in calling out companies antagonistic to union pushes, noting his warning last month at a union event when he declared: “Amazon, here we come — watch.”
Verrett, who also is president of the long-term care worker union SEIU Local 2015, said organizers will continue to push Biden to do more to address persistent income inequality in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“We have to make it easier for these workers to form a union,” she said, “and we are counting on the president to use his position and his authority and his power to help us make that happen.”