Biden, AFL-CIO labor law agendas track each other
The incoming Biden-Harris administration has a strong pro-worker agenda, leaders of the country's unions say. | AP

WASHINGTON —Go to incoming Democratic President Joe Biden’s “Building Back Better” agenda on his website and read through it. The word “union,” the phrase “right to organize” and especially the word “worker” run through it like a constant thread

No wonder AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in a Jan. 12 telephone press conference, considered Biden the most pro-worker president in decades. “And in one week and one day, Joe Biden will be inaugurated and we’re ready to work with him.”

That’s because two key items of pro-worker legislation top both Biden’s agenda and the Workers First Agenda Trumka unveiled at the press conference. And so does a lot of other legislation—from job safety and health rules to new infrastructure–the incoming U.S. chief executive advocates.

The first is more and more immediate aid to workers and their families battling the coronavirus pandemic and the economic depression needed closures to curb it caused.

The second and the one with potentially longer impact is congressional passage of the Protect the Right to Organize (Pro) Act, the most pro-worker comprehensive labor law since the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

But back to Biden’s agenda. Its very first section, Build Back Better: Joe Biden’s Jobs And Economic Recovery Plan For Working Families, “worker” appears 59 times, “union” appears 26 times, and “right to organize” is listed half-a-dozen times—all in one devoted to benefits of passing the PRO Act.  But it’s not just that.

“Let’s not just praise them, let’s pay them,” Biden said of workers. That means “a decent wage, at least $15 per hour, and ending the tipped minimum wage and sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities, and strong benefits so they can live a middle-class life and provide opportunity for their kids.”

“This starts with passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, providing public service and federal government workers with bargaining rights, and taking other steps to make it easier for workers to organize unions and collectively bargain.”

The pro-labor agenda put forward by AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, parallels the one on Joe Biden’s website. | American Federation of Employees

And Biden promises to “address discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act as the next step in efforts to ensure women are paid equally for equal work.” Biden also will push “universal paid sick days and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.”

Biden wants to insert the PRO Act, including his own idea of sending repeat labor law-breaking corporate honchos to jail, into his plan to rebuild U.S. manufacturing. Other PRO Act parts include card check recognition, bargaining rights for public service workers, “a broad definition of ‘employee’” under labor law, to cover more workers “and tough enforcement to end the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.”

“Throughout the entire campaign, Joe Biden talked about the importance of rebuilding unions” as well as passing the key legislation, Trumka explained. Labor will build its campaign around current popular support, around 65%, for the role of unions.

Trumka also declared the PRO Act has majority support in both the House and the Senate. He’s right about the House. It passed the PRO Act last year, but only after workers and their allies raised a ruckus about lack of movement, The vote was party-line.

The Senate is another matter: A 50-50 partisan tie, to be broken by Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris. But that also means one defecting Democrat would imperil the law if all Republicans hew to their party’s anti-worker anti-union ideology.

And Trumka acknowledged business will launch a massive campaign against the PRO Act, just as they did when Biden’s boss, then-President Barack Obama (D), initially put Biden in charge of shepherding the last major labor law rewrite, the Employee Free Choice Act, through Congress in 2009.

But Obama then switched Biden to lobbying lawmakers for passage of the Affordable Care Act, just after EFCA’s top legislative champion, Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., also renowned for his legislative successes and ability to craft deals, died. EFCA died on the vine, upsetting unions.

“We’re going to fight for it,” Trumka vowed about the PRO Act. “And this administration is going to fight alongside us,” Trumka said. “None of this will be easy, but all of it is necessary.”

All this dovetails with organized labor’s agenda, which “is broad, comprehensive, and exactly what is needed to lift America out of this pain,” he explained.

Trumka explained the PRO Act is “more than just labor law reform. It’s a civil rights bill and an economic stimulus bill.”  Its passage would also help “rebuild housing security, health security, and economic security…raise wages, protect health care, and advance racial and economic justice.”

Federal data back Trumka’s assertion and Biden’s reasons for pushing the PRO Act. The median pay of union workers is at least $200 weekly more than those of non-union counterparts. Union working women earn 90 cents for comparable working men, while all working women earn 80 cents—and union women out-earn non-union men.

And unionized workers are much more likely than non-unionists to have pensions, health insurance coverage, and other benefits, including paid family and medical leave. All this lets people ascend to and live in the middle class, Biden says.

The PRO Act and the stimulus aren’t the only priorities where Biden’s and labor’s agendas agree. After that, both say, comes revitalizing and rebuilding U.S. infrastructure.

That doesn’t mean just roads, airports, and railroads, but buses, subways, and broadband—and other sections of the so-called “green” economy, such as massive retrofitting of buildings, sewer and water systems, and power lines.

Biden says all these projects, including “green” growth, should be done by union labor. That cheered Trumka, who put spending $1.5 trillion on infrastructure in the second section of pro-worker legislation unions will push.

“A modern sustainable infrastructure” needs “sustainable engines of growthfrom roads and bridges, to energy grids and schools, to universal broadband,” Biden says. That’s where Biden’s nominee for Labor Secretary, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, may be a key.

Walsh, a member of Laborers Local 223 and a former chief of the Boston Building and Construction Trades, “carried the tools, and he knows union membership is essential for building back better,” said Trumka. “And he has the ear of the White House.

“Because he’s a rank-and-file union member…it says to workers ‘You matter’ and that a worker will be at the Cabinet table every time.” Walsh’s rank-and-file background and—though Trumka did not say it—his political service also will give him credibility on Capitol Hill.

Walsh will have another role in Biden’s pro-labor agenda, Trumka predicted: Reversing “the thousands of” anti-worker decisions GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s Labor Department has issued over the last four years. “They hurt working people every day,” the AFL-CIO leader said.

The Biden agenda calls for a nationwide minimum wage of at least $15 an hour. | Seth Wenig/AP

“And he [Walsh] will be a tremendous advocate for collective bargaining.”

Not just that, the union leader adds. Trumka expects Biden and Walsh will turn the federal government’s contracting power in workers’ favor, by setting pro-worker standards firms seeking federal contracts must meet. Biden has promised that in his platform, too.

Biden’s old boss, Democratic President Barack Obama, told federal contracting officers to consider if a firm obeyed or broke labor laws, civil rights laws, or tax laws in awarding federal cash. Biden wants to require the contracting officers take those factors into account—by writing them into law.

That’s important, because federal contracts are a large share of the U.S. domestic economy, running into the hundreds of billions of dollars from the military alone.

The Green New Deal, which Biden supports in all but name—the phrase angers building trades union leaders who see the GND costing their members jobs—will also benefit workers and unions, both Biden and Trumka say. Biden’s platform flatly pledges GND jobs must be union jobs. Trumka says labor’s platform agrees, but goes one step farther: Ensuring communities whose “dirty” plants close aren’t left behind.

That’s important in Rust Belt states around the Great Lakes, such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, and Trumka’s home, Pennsylvania.

“We’ve talked to the [Biden] transition teams about the right balance between going green and at the same time not putting people” in old energy industries such as coal and oil “out of work—or if they are, of transitioning them to a lower-or non-carbon” emitting plant, ex-coal miner Trumka said.

“If you’ve got computer programming jobs in California, it doesn’t help people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or Louisiana….We can’t just forget about them.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).