Why Biden May Not Be Able to Save Unions

Two months into the new administration, labor leaders are proclaiming Joseph R. Biden Jr. to be the most union-friendly president of their lifetime — and “maybe ever,” as Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in an interview.

Mr. Biden has moved quickly to oust government officials whom unions deemed hostile to labor, and to reverse Trump-era rules that weakened worker protections. He has pushed through legislation sending hundreds of billions of dollars to cities and states, aid that public-sector unions consider essential, and tens of billions to shore up union pension plans.

Perhaps most notably, the president appeared in a video alluding to a union vote underway at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, warning that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” — an unusually outspoken move by a president in a standard union election.

Yet Mr. Rosenthal and other labor advocates confess to a gnawing anxiety: Despite Mr. Biden’s remarkable support for their movement, unions may not be much better off when he leaves office than when he entered it.

PRO Act, which the House passed this month — to reverse the trend.

“The PRO Act is vital,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “But what happens now in terms of Republicans in Congress, the Senate filibuster, is anyone’s guess.”

Until recently, it was far from clear that Mr. Biden would govern in such a union-friendly way. Though he has long promoted the benefits of unions and cited close relationships with labor leaders, the president has also maintained ties to corporate figures like Steve Ricchetti, a counselor to the president who was a lobbyist for companies including AT&T and Eli Lilly. Mr. Biden voted over the years for free-trade agreement that unions opposed.

Then there is the fact that he served as vice president in an administration that sometimes annoyed unions, as when President Barack Obama weighed in on behalf of a school district in Rhode Island that fired the faculty of an underperforming school. Mr. Biden also captained an Obama administration team that negotiated with Republicans over deficit reduction, an effort that raised hackles within labor.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Mr. Biden’s allies and advisers argued that he had merely acted as a loyal deputy to his boss, and that he would prove more in sync with labor as president.

National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel, Peter B. Robb, whose office enforces the labor rights of private-sector employees.

Mr. Robb was deeply unpopular with organized labor, which viewed him as overly friendly to management. His term was set to expire in November, and presidents of both parties have allowed general counsels to serve out their time in office.

But with no letter of resignation from Mr. Robb forthcoming on Inauguration Day, the White House fired him.

“What was really promising and exciting to those of us who care was the firing of Peter Robb and the dramatic way it came down,” said Lisa Canada, the political and legislative director for Michigan’s state carpenters union.

Yet it is the Alabama video that most clearly highlights the differences between Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama on labor. When state workers flocked to Madison, Wis., in 2011 protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to roll back their bargaining rights, union leaders pleaded with the White House to send a top administration official in solidarity. The White House declined, though Mr. Obama did say the plan seemed like “an assault on unions.”

“We made every imaginable effort to get someone there,” said Larry Cohen, who was then president of the Communications Workers of America and is now chair of the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution. “They would not allow anyone to go.”

post a notice promising to abide by labor law in the future, said Wilma B. Liebman, a former board chairwoman. There are no monetary penalties for such violations, though workers can be made whole through back pay.

The PRO Act would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings, enact financial penalties for threatening or firing workers and help wrongly terminated workers win quick reinstatement. It would also give unions leverage by allowing them to engage in secondary boycotts — say, asking customers to boycott restaurants that buy food from a bakery they are trying to unionize.

statement after the meeting, the council members called for “swift and necessary changes” to Senate rules to remove the filibuster as an obstacle to progressive legislation.

indicated that he is open to weakening the filibuster, though it is not clear whether the PRO Act would benefit.

Mr. Trumka said he was confident that Mr. Biden would seize the opportunity that Mr. Obama had let pass when Democrats enjoyed a large Senate majority but still failed to change labor law. “This president understands the power of solving inequalities through collective bargaining,” Mr. Trumka said.

But others are skeptical that Mr. Biden, for all his outspokenness on behalf of unions, will be in a position to deliver.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “We know where his heart is. It doesn’t mean anything will change.”

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