Biden leans into labor amid midterm fears over workers
President Biden has leaned into his support for organized labor, ramping up his engagements with organizers as Democrats worry they could lose more blue-collar workers to the GOP in the midterms.
Biden, who pledged to be the most pro-union president in U.S. history, hosted union organizers from Amazon and Starbucks at the White House recently and has been visiting with major union leadership out in the states.
Biden visited the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) conference in Chicago in May, lending the event the characteristics of a campaign rally.
Biden took shots at Republicans for not supporting the middle class and touted policies he’s implemented that the White House says will help working families.
Democrats have been losing ground with union voters in states such as Ohio, which former President Trump won in 2020. Trump’s anti-trade message in particular resonated with union voters, aggravating existing Democratic fears that the party risks losing support from union households.
Rising inflation has put more pressure on workers, and added to the political problems for Biden.
Biden’s in-person meeting with Amazon organizer Christian Smalls and others organizers, including from Starbucks, was a big deal for workers as the president and Vice President Harris conveyed support for their leadership in organizing unions.
The meeting involved organizers describing some of the alleged anti-union tactics deployed by some of the employers and it followed a historic victory for Amazon workers in April when a Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse voted to unionize.
The meetings also got the attention of the companies involved.
Following the meeting, Starbucks officials wrote to Biden and asked for their own meeting, expressing their concern that workers were invited while no official Starbucks representative was invited.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on Biden in April to bar companies who violate federal labor laws from receiving contracts with the federal government.
The senator referenced in his letter to the president a campaign promise Biden made in which he said he would impose a federal debarment for workplaces that opposed unions illegally and vowed to only give out federal contracts to employers who agreed not to run campaigns that were anti-union.
“It’s incredibly powerful for the president to visibly show solidarity by inviting low-wage workers to the Roosevelt Room, that’s awesome. That being said, the pat on the back, the embrace, is not in itself enough and the president has to use the full power of the United States government to help these workers organize,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive political action organization Our Revolution.
Biden often calls on Congress to pass the PRO Act, which has stalled in the Senate. It’s considered labor’s top legislative priority and would stiffen penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights and strengthen protections for employees against retaliation.
Passing the legislation would be difficult, however, given the opposition of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) to ending the filibuster.
“As the people step up, our politicians need to step up with them, and lead – that means abolishing the filibuster and passing the PRO Act immediately,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement.
Biden early in his presidency created a Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, with Harris at the helm and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh serving as vice chair.
Walsh is the first union official to be Labor secretary in four decades; he previously was head of the Boston Building Trades before he was mayor of Boston. Biden often says, when speaking to labor groups, “If you got to be in a foxhole, you want [Walsh] with you.”
Another go-to line of the president when he’s visit with big labor is that unions “brung me to the dance” and expresses his gratitude for union support for his political life.
Labor’s bosses are largely in his corner.
“With President Biden, it’s not just words. He’s using the power of the presidency to have workers’ backs,” Lee Saunders, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees president, told The Hill.
The bigger question is whether their rank-and-file members will be solidly in line with Biden and his political party this fall.
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