Briskly making good on his vow to be “the most pro-union president ever,” President Joe Biden is acting decisively to balance the scales for workers and affirming their rights with more forceful words than any White House has uttered in generations.
|In Michigan, President Biden tours the Pfizer plant that rolled out the nation’s first COVID-19 vaccines. Describing the steps of the precision operation and praising the unionized workers who carry it out, he said, “We walked by a freezer farm that keeps those doses viable so they can be shipped.” The warehouse he referred to was retrofitted with hundreds of industrial, sub-zero freezers by Kalamazoo Local 131 members.
“Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice,” Biden said Feb. 28. “It’s your right, no employer can take that right away. So, make your voice heard.”
His video message came as 6,000 Alabama warehouse workers were voting by mail to decide the fate of a widely publicized organizing drive that management bitterly opposed.
He appealed to all workers fighting those battles, not specifying any one employer. But his tone and timing were unambiguous.
“He went where no president has gone before,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “He weighed the risks, and he stood with workers.”
Halfway through his first 100 days as president, Biden’s words line up with his deeds.
He began reversing his predecessor’s worst anti-worker policies within hours of taking office, is backing major reforms to undo decades of earlier damage and has placed union members and labor allies in key jobs throughout the administration.
More broadly, he and Vice President Kamala Harris are pushing a bold agenda to combat the coronavirus, put money in the pockets of working Americans, and create hundreds of thousands — potentially millions — of union jobs through massive investment in the nation’s infrastructure.
Along the way, he is teaching a nation unschooled in labor history how and why unions are so important.
“America wasn’t built by Wall Street,” Biden is fond of saying. “The middle class built this country, and labor built the middle class.”
THAT WAS his preamble to the press pool on a mid-February afternoon when he sat down in the Oval Office with Stephenson and other building trades leaders.
His guests described it as the most substantial White House discussion on behalf of workers in years. “Enormously productive,” Stephenson said.
They talked about the $1.9 trillion stimulus package to recharge the U.S. economy through direct relief and programs to sustain a recovery; about buy-American and supply-chain orders to ignite the manufacturing sector; and Biden’s epic plans for public works, which he began rolling out March 31.
“We have an incredible opportunity to make enormous progress in creating good-paying jobs, Davis-Bacon prevailing wage jobs, to rebuild the infrastructure of this country in a way that everybody knows has to be done,” Biden remarked to reporters at the February meeting, before beginning his closed-door conversation with labor leaders.
He lamented that the United States lags far behind other developed nations “in terms of infrastructure, everything from canals to highways to airports, to everything we can do and we need to do to make ourselves competitive in the 21st century.”
That includes greater access to registered apprenticeships, which Biden made possible by reversing his predecessor’s executive order favoring substandard Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs.
By undermining training and safety standards and allowing employers to cut apprentices' wages and benefits, IRAPS posed a direct threat to world-class programs run by the IBEW and other trades.
The meeting underscored how much apprentices and journeymen alike have to gain from Biden’s agenda.
As his campaign’s Build Back Better platform promised, he wants to spend $2 trillion on a historic swath of projects ranging from energy, transit and broadband to the urgent rehabilitation of roads, rails, bridges, tunnels and more. That includes a major investment in the power grid that will put tens of thousands of IBEW members to work — projects more urgent than ever in the wake of February’s deadly freeze in Texas.
As the specifics were being hammered out, Stephenson was optimistic.
“We’re eager to see the concrete details of the infrastructure plan, but we have no doubt about President Biden’s commitment to do it right, and that means union jobs,” he said. Read the BEW’s April 5 statement on the announced plans.
Stephenson was invited to a second White House meeting a week after the first — virtually this time — along with the president of the United Autoworkers and more than a dozen U.S. automakers.
Their hosts, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and top economic and climate officials told them, categorically, that the auto industry’s transition to clean energy will be driven by good, union jobs.
That includes retooling, constructing and maintaining automobile plants and nationwide charging networks — projects so vast, Stephenson said, “they literally could employ an IBEW electrician from apprenticeship to retirement.”
“They made it clear to the automakers that we’re their partners, not their adversaries,” he said. “They were emphatic about it, and they have the power to see it through because the federal government is going to invest billions to modernize the automobile industry.”
AS INFRASTRUCTURE and related endeavors were progressing in early March, the administration’s most pressing goal was getting its $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan through Congress.
On March 10, they succeeded and within days $1,400 stimulus payments were on their way to every American earning less than $75,000.
The bill also extends unemployment benefits, provides an 85% subsidy for COBRA health coverage for six months, helps protect against evictions.
Arguably most vital to IBEW members, the new law addresses the endangered multi-employer pension system that millions of unionized workers count on for a secure retirement.
While the IBEW’s own pension plans are in good shape, some unions’ plans aren’t, a situation that Republicans exploited to try to bring down the entire system in favor of cheaper, less-stable employee-funded options.
A fix to keep the system solvent was included in the rescue plan, and union leaders made sure that Biden knew how crucial it was to keep it there.
“Congress kicked this problem down the road for years, increasing the difficulty and the cost of solving it and putting millions of workers and retirees at risk through no fault of their own,” Stephenson said. “This bill will fix that, and we’re very grateful to President Biden for making it a priority.”
The rescue plan overall marks a profound shift from the previous administration by prioritizing workers, families and small businesses over corporations and billionaires.
Beyond its marquee provisions, the plan includes $130 billion to reopen schools; $160 billion for COVID-19 vaccines, testing and PPE production; a higher childcare tax credit; funds for public transit; and $4.5 billion in energy assistance for low-income households, money that will also help IBEW-employer utilities straining under the burden of unpaid bills.
Polls during debate on the bill showed that the vast majority of Americans supported the package, including 60% of Republicans. But the bipartisanship ended at Capitol Hill: not a single GOP lawmaker in either the House or Senate voted in favor.
By the narrowest of margins, Democrats succeeded not only in passing the bill but in pushing to do so before March 14, the expiration of jobless benefits from last year’s COVID-19 relief.
“We have no time to waste," Biden said as during the race for passage. "The people of this country have suffered far too much for too long.”
THE RESCUE PLAN lays the foundation for other initiatives “to rebuild the backbone of America,” as Biden put it in January when he signed a “Buy American” executive order for federal purchases.
That order and another a month later are designed to jumpstart the manufacturing sector and prevent the kind of shortages that compound a crisis, such as the life-and-death scramble for protective equipment in the first months of the pandemic.
“The key plank will be, ‘Made in America,’” Biden said. “I don’t accept the defeatist view that the forces of automation and globalization (will stop) union jobs from growing here in America. We can create more of them, not fewer.”
Federal contracts awarded to foreign suppliers went up by 30% in the last administration. Biden said his order sets “clear directives” to minimize waivers for offshore purchasing, which were issued with abandon the past four years.
Now, “If an agency wants a waiver… they have to come to the White House and explain it to us,” he said.
Biden began to shore up and streamline the U.S. supply chain inside his first 48 hours as president, starting with an executive order to coordinate the nation’s scattershot COVID-19 response and activate the Defense Production Act.
He touted its progress several weeks later while touring the Pfizer campus in Kalamazoo, Mich., where Local 131 members retrofitted a warehouse with hundreds of sub-zero industrial freezers to store fragile coronavirus vaccines.
“When we discovered that vaccine manufacturers weren’t being prioritized when it came to scrutinizing and securing supplies they needed, we fixed that problem and got them what they needed,” Biden said. “We also used the Defense Production Act to speed up the supply chain for key equipment, like fill pumps and filters, which has already helped increase vaccine production.”
He broadened the scope Feb. 24, signing a multi-pronged order to sharpen America’s competitive edge and ensure a steady supply of critical good and services, from groceries and prescriptions to computer chips and car parts.
The bottom line for Biden is this:
“We're going to use taxpayers' money to rebuild America, buy American products and support American jobs,” he said.
MOMENTS after Biden was sworn in Jan. 20, the rabidly anti-union general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Robb, received a letter from the new president.
Biden was cleaning house. Resign by 5 p.m. or be fired, he told him, the same choice he gave Robb’s deputy the next day. Together with the GOP-majority board, the pair had done grave damage to workers’ rights in recent years.
They weren’t the only federal executives that he quickly fired for cause before their contracts were up, citing gross failure to live up to their duties to protect workers and consumers.
Their polar-opposite replacements include new NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, previously the top lawyer at the Communications Workers of America.
She joins an atypically long list of career workers’ advocates — and union members themselves —who are serving at every level of the Biden-Harris administration.
Topping the list is former Boston Laborer-turned-Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who was confirmed by a 68-29 Senate vote on March 22. Eighteen Republicans joined all Democrats in backing his nomination.
Formerly the mayor of Boston, Walsh is hailed by the city’s IBEW leaders as a dream choice to head the Labor Department, a genuine “man of the people” who has never forgotten where he came from.
Other notable hires include James Frederick, heading the Occupational Safety and Health Department after 25 years with the Steelworkers; Minnesota building trades executive Jessica Looman serving as a deputy administrator in the DOL’s wage and hour division; and Jennifer Kropke, a deeply rooted IBEW activist from Los Angeles Local 11 who’s taken her fight for good, green, union jobs to the leadership team at the Department of Energy.
Workers even have allies in surprising places, historically speaking, such as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
A labor economist and chair of the Fed from 2014 to 2018, Yellen prioritized jobs and wages in the aftermath of the Great Recession. She reaffirmed as much during her confirmation to become the nation’s first woman to head the Treasury Department.
“We have to rebuild our economy so that it creates more prosperity, for more people, and ensures that American workers can compete in an increasingly competitive global economy,” she said.
LIKE HE did at the NLRB to protect private-sector workers, Biden is also salvaging the badly battered rights of federal employees, who were largely stripped of union representation the past four years.
On Feb. 2, he ousted all 10 members of the little-known Federal Service Impasse Panel, which resolves disputes between unions and the government.
The previous administration stacked the panel with anti-union appointees who ruled in favor of management nine of 10 times, according to watchdog reports.
The firings came on the heels of a Biden executive order to restore federal collective bargaining rights and other protections workers lost as hostile forces waged war on their unions.
“Federal employees … are essential to this country,” the White House said in an official statement. “Their work transcends partisan politics. But over the last four years they’ve been undermined and demoralized.”
Paul O’Connor, director of the Government Employees Department, praised Biden’s swift — and, he believes, heartfelt — actions on behalf of federal workers, including tens of thousands of IBEW members.
“President Biden believes in them. He knows they’re not part of some ‘swamp’ filled with political hacks,” O’Connor said. “They’re smart and principled people who keep the country running.”
IT’S THE kind of respect Biden has for working people across the board.
He believes unequivocally in their rights — our rights — and he expressed that in a way no modern president has as the embattled warehouse workers were voting in Alabama.
He never named their behemoth employer. He didn’t have to. Its anti-union tactics were making global headlines.
“Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment,” he said at the top of a 2 ½-minute video.
“I made it clear when I was running that my administration’s policy would be to support union organizing and the right to collectively bargain. I’m keeping that promise.
“You should all remember the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist. It said that we should encourage unions.
“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor,” he said, wagging a finger, “no supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences.
“It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union but let me be clear: it’s not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers — full stop.”
DELIVERED from the bully pulpit of the White House, the message brought Biden’s commitment to workers into the sharpest focus yet.
“It’s a turning point in our national conversation,” Stephenson said. “The polls have always shown that a majority of workers would join a union if given the chance, and the odds are much better now that they’ll have that opportunity.”
He cautions that unions still have formidable enemies and uphill battles to fight. That there will always be political realities to contend with, including today’s split Senate and narrow pro-worker majority in the U.S. House
“Not everything will be a win for us,” Stephenson said. “There’s going to be compromise. There always is. But never in our lifetimes have we had an advocate in the White House as determined to fight for us as Joe Biden is. The difference already is night and day.”