Biden just proved to workers that he’s got our backs
Joe Biden, then the Democratic presidential candidate, meets with union leaders outside AFL-CIO headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., Sept. 7, 2020. | Carolyn Kaster / AP

Going on 86 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt made the most pro-union statement ever uttered by an American president. Joe Biden just broke FDR’s record.

Said the 46th president in a video posted to Twitter: “…Workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important—a vitally important choice as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis, and the reckoning on race.”

Biden also warned against tactics employers, including Amazon, use to defeat unions: “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences. You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”

Typical of millions of trade unionists nationwide, longtime Bluegrass State labor activist Kirk Gillenwaters was astounded when he viewed the video on TV. “After I watched it, the hair on my arms was still standing up,” said the Louisville UAW Local 862 retiree who’s president of the Kentucky Alliance for Retired Americans.

“In my lifetime, I have never seen a president take such a stand in support for everyday workers to be able to belong to a union to better their quality of life.”

By “workers in Alabama,” Biden meant a union drive by employees at a warehouse in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb. The pro-union workers want to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union; voting is underway.

Biden’s remarks included a history lesson: “You should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist, it said that we should encourage unions.”

After FDR signed the landmark legislation, also known as the Wagner Act, on July 5, 1935, he was quoted as saying, “If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I’d do is join a union.”

Elsewhere in his statement, Biden declared, “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. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers.”

AP

He also pointed out, “So let me be really clear: it’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more 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, full stop.”

In a statement, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum thanked Biden “for sending a clear message of support for the Amazon Union workers seeking to bring the first union to an Amazon warehouse with RWDSU. As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions.”

Biden pledged to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” The title has previously been FDR’s.

His Depression-fighting New Deal program boosted unions. The Wagner Act not only guaranteed workers the right to organize; the measure required employers to recognize the union and to bargain with the workers.

Roosevelt had a big edge Biden doesn’t have: whopping pro-New Deal and pro-union Democratic House and Senate majorities.

Biden supports the PRO Act, the most important pro-labor legislation since the New Deal era. While it passed the Democratic-majority House a year ago, it’s future is uncertain in the 50-50 Senate, where the Republicans are certain to block it with a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome.

Roosevelt was elected with strong labor support in 1932. Unions were in his corner when he was reelected in 1936, 1940, and 1944. Union votes helped elect Biden last November.

Anyway, talk is cheap—bargain-basement level among more than a few politicians. Biden’s statement showed that he meant what he said about unions. At the same time, his comments should also silence critics, including some labor leaders, who’d been faulting him for not flatly endorsing the Amazon union campaign.

Biden has proved he has labor’s back. Labor must—more than ever—show the president we’ve got his back. We’ve got to help him get the PRO Act and other labor legislation on the books by helping elect more pro-union Democrats to the House and Senate next year.

History, the subject I taught for two dozen years, instructs that parties which hold the White House usually lose seats in mid-term congressional elections. FDR was a notable exception.

He and the New Deal were so popular that in 1934, the Democrats added nine House seats and nine Senate seats to their hefty majorities in both houses.

The next year, Congress passed, and FDR inked, the Wagner Act, the most important labor bill in American history.

Passage of the PRO Act would arguably be the biggest boon for unions since the Wagner Act.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article represents the opinions of its author.

Read: Biden declares support for Alabama Amazon workers’ union drive


CONTRIBUTOR

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.

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