Biden agenda pushes jobs, families, equality, wage hikes, and unions
Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. flank President Joe Biden as he addresses a joint session of Congress, April 28, 2021. | Melina Mara / The Washington Post via AP

WASHINGTON—Democratic President Joe Biden unveiled a long, strong progressive agenda in his April 28 equivalent of the State of the Union address, urging lawmakers to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, pass strong equal pay legislation, and declare—and fund—child care as one part of his American Families bill, among other causes.

Biden spoke to an unusual and historic joint session of Congress, with only 200 masked people scattered around the U.S. House chamber and galleries, not the usual joint session crowd of 1,400-plus. Coronavirus physical distancing restrictions forced the small crowd.

He began his address, on day 99 of his presidency, by celebrating progress against the viral plague and a following triumph for democracy, while ending it with a warning about an existential threat, from “domestic terrorism” and white nationalism, to the country’s system of government.

Biden began by applauding, literally, that for the first time in history, two women—Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats from California, sat behind him on the podium. Harris and Pelosi are first and second in the line of presidential succession. Then, and throughout his speech, attending Republicans sat on their hands.

The seating of Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi, first and second in the line of presidential succession, behind Biden was a historic moment. It was the first time that women have occupied both seats. | AP

The president urged vigilance against the white nationalist and extremist threat, citing those who invaded the Capitol and almost took over the House chamber itself on Jan. 6. Their coup attempt demanded that Donald Trump, the right-wing GOP Oval Office occupant Biden defeated, stay in the White House, and pledged fealty to him as dictator.

“The insurrection was an existential test of our democracy, and it survived,” Biden said. But the new test is, “Can democracy deliver on our promise?” to the U.S. people, including the disaffected and distrustful.

“Can we overcome the hates, the angers, and the fears?” that drove that invasion, which killed five people, trashed parts of the building’s interior, and featured prominent display of the Confederate flag. “The autocrats are betting that we can’t.”

The first hundred days and beyond

The U.S. can overcome that hate, Biden explained, by creating a society and economy that benefits not just the rich but the rest of us. Which is why he pushed the PRO Act and other pro-worker measures, including his $2 trillion infrastructure plan and his American Families Act.

“Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country and unions built the middle class,” Biden declared, re-running a line he’s often used. “And that’s why I’m calling on Congress to pass the PRO Act. Send it to my desk and I’ll sign it.”

“And while we’re doing this, send the increase in the minimum wage to my desk and I’ll sign it. And send the Paycheck Fairness Act,” which would put strong enforcement teeth into the Kennedy-era Equal Pay Act, “and I’ll sign it.”

Television cameras showed that immediately after the speech, Biden engaged in a long discussion on the House floor with the two lawmakers who push those causes in particular, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

The kind of new society and economy outlined in his speech would also attack structural racism, lead the world in fighting climate change, produce green and union jobs via the infrastructure plan, and prepare itself to battle the next pandemic, Biden added.

Biden proposed paying for his ambitious plans by, among other proposals, forcing the rich and corporations “to pay their fair share” through higher taxes—including repealing favored treatment for capital gains—and tough enforcement against tax evaders, big corporations, and the ultra-rich.

Biden cited a study showing 55 corporations out of the Fortune 500 paid no income taxes at all in the three years since the 2017 Trump-GOP tax cut, and got billions in refunds. He also pledged no one making under $400,000 yearly would see a tax hike. Democrats applauded; Republicans didn’t.

Left unmentioned was the bloated military budget. Substantial cuts there would add many billions of dollars in savings that could also be used to pay for Biden’s programs.

Union leaders reacted positively to Biden’s speech, especially the PRO Act passage.

“President Biden understands we are at a crossroads,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a prepared statement. Trumka added the coronavirus pandemic “laid bare the systemic inequalities that prevented too many working families from realizing the American Dream.”

As of 8 a.m. on April 29, the morning following Biden’s speech, the pandemic had killed 574,343 people, almost equal to the population of Wyoming. It’s still an enormous threat, Biden said, even as a majority of the nation’s 331 million people have had at least one anti-virus shot, an achievement he celebrated at the address’s start.

Trumka said recovery is more than just beating the virus: “It will require structural changes to our economy, a fundamental strengthening of our democracy, and unprecedented federal investments in the communities that have lost the most.

“That means creating good-paying union jobs to rebuild our country’s capacity to provide for its people—from fixing our roads and modernizing our energy grid to educating our kids and caring for our grandparents. And it means restoring the balance of power in our workplaces by passing the PRO Act.”

The labor leader said Biden laid out the path ahead and that now it’s time for Congress to turn those words into reality for millions of working families.

Vision for change win’s labor praise

Other union leaders echoed Trumka’s praise for the Biden speech. Many concentrated on sections of Biden’s plans affecting workers directly, but Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, began with the pro-Trump coup attempt.

“The beginning of this administration has proved a triumph for the majority of this country who want a government that solves problems, not one that engages in polarization and chaos,” said Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher. Neither she nor Biden mentioned Trump by name.

By contrast, Biden’s “list of achievements is noteworthy, from shattering the 200 million vaccine goal, to getting the majority of schools reopened for safe in-person learning, to securing the landmark American Rescue Plan and proposing the companion American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan,” Weingarten added.

The jobs plan is Biden’s traditional infrastructure bill, investing billions in roads, bridges, subways, bus lines, electric vehicles and their charging stations—which he said the Electrical Workers would build—ports, broadband, and green industry. The families plan would invest billions in adding four years of free public education, two in pre-school and two in college, child and elder care, and other social services.

“Collectively, these three initiatives mark the greatest investment in the American people since the New Deal,” Weingarten said.

Biden’s families plan, to be funded in part through the tax hikes on the rich and corporations, drew praise from Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan, the Steelworkers, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, and from Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest U.S. union.

The Communications Workers linked Biden’s specific spending plans to passing the PRO Act. Biden “includes funding to build high-speed broadband, repair our highways and bridges, build clean, electric buses, revitalize domestic manufacturing, upgrade our nation’s airports, and much more,” union President Chris Shelton said.

“As part of the plan, Biden specifically calls on Congress to pass the PRO Act to ensure those doing this work can join a union, and to guarantee union and bargaining rights for public sector workers.”

Biden’s speech garnered praise from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other labor leaders. Here, Biden and Trumka are seen together at a 2015 Labor Day parade. | Keith Srakocic / AP

“Having a strong union has meant that members are able to count on good wages and benefits,” O’Sullivan said. “However, without family-supporting policies like those contained in the far-reaching American Families Plan, there are still too many barriers to success for millions.”

“Most of us want our neighborhood public schools and institutions of higher learning to inspire imagination, cultivate critical thinking, and ensure all of our students—regardless of race, gender identity, or ZIP code—can live fulfilling lives and reach their true full potential,” said Pringle. “We applaud…prioritizing students and public education by proposing timely and necessary once-in-a-generation funding for services that help families and communities.”

That includes billions for pre-K, the two years of community college, the paid family and medical leave, an increase in Pell grants for the nation’s lowest-income college students, and funding for teacher recruitment and training. That initiative would both increase diversity and help stem the brain drain which occurs as a large share of teachers drop out after only a few years in the profession, she added.

Saunders agreed with O’Sullivan and Pringle and praised Biden for paying for the families plan by taxing the rich. Biden is “asking the most privileged Americans to finally shoulder their fair share of the tax burden,” Saunders said.

“Under the American Families Plan, no one making under $400,000 a year would pay more in taxes than they do now. And lower- and middle-income working people would receive tax credits that make child care and health care more affordable, helping them stay out of poverty,” he noted.

Missed opportunities

Rep. Mondaire Jones, a newly elected congressman from New York and a Black Lives Matter activist, praised Biden but said the president should have been even bolder, especially in denouncing police repression of people of color. The president said most police perform honorably and are just as upset as millions of others are by killings of unarmed, unresisting people of color. He urged Congress to pass the George Floyd police reform bill before next month, which will mark the first anniversary of Floyd’s murder.

“Biden proposed constructive steps, but we have to go bigger,” said the first-year lawmaker, who ousted a veteran and politically connected New York congressman in the 2020 Democratic primary. “I have one message for law enforcement: Stop killing us! Black people are not there for target practice.

“But it’s not just police. It’s housing discrimination, wage theft, and environmental racism” along with a repressive history in other areas of society. “We have to be honest with ourselves about our past.”

On foreign policy, except for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, Biden avoided mention of any major departures from past U.S. foreign policy commitments. China was highlighted numerous times, though in a less confrontational tone than used by the Trump administration. Biden said the U.S. was “in competition…to win the 21st century,” though he said had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S. is “not looking for conflict.” On Russia, he claimed the U.S. would look for opportunities to cooperate when it is the two countries’ mutual interest, but indicated that alleged Russian interference in elections remained a sticking point.

Other than announcing resumption of talks about de-nuclearizing Iran, Biden was silent on the combative tinderbox of the Middle East, including about right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s colonization of Palestinian areas. J Street, the anti-Netanyahu, pro-peace Jewish group, also issued no statements on the matter.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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