Biden pushes workers to join unions, sets $15 federal minimum wage
Biden at Pennsylvania AFL-CIO headquarters in Harrisburg, Sept. 7, 2020. | Carolyn Kaster / AP

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Saying the National Labor Relations Act’s 86-year-old mandate to have the government encourage worker organizing “has never been fully enforced,” Democratic President Joe Biden created an interagency task force on worker organizing and empowerment and told it to report practical measures to him within 180 days.

And on April 27, the day after he created the task force, Biden put the government’s money where his mouth is, so to speak: He issued an executive order declaring that employees of federal contractors must be paid at least $15 an hour, by next March if they’re regular workers and by the end of 2024 if they’re tipped workers, such as servers in fast food restaurants on military bases.

That move will help millions of workers, although not all will get the 37% hike—over the current $10.95 minimum for federal contractors’ workers—in March. That’s because it’ll take effect as new contracts are signed. Biden’s unionization task force is to come up with ways to help millions more.

“The mission of the Task Force will be to mobilize the federal government’s policies, programs, and practices to empower workers to organize and successfully bargain with their employers,” Biden’s executive order says.

“This mission includes looking for ways to increase worker power in areas of the country with restrictive labor laws, for marginalized workers including women and people of color, and for workers in industries that are difficult to organize and lack labor protections.”

“The president and vice president believe the decline of union membership is contributing to serious societal and economic problems in our country. Widespread and deep economic inequality, stagnant real wages, and the shrinking of America’s middle class are all associated with the declining percentage” of unionized workers.

“Lower union membership rates exacerbated the pay gap for women and workers of color. The decline of union density has also weakened our democracy. Unions ensure workers’ voices are heard in their workplaces, communities, and government.”

Unions praise the moves

Vice President Kamala Harris will chair Biden’s union task force. Here, when still a U.S. Senator, she talks to a union leader while walking a picket line with striking UAW members, Oct. 3, 2019, just north of Reno, Nev. | Scott Sonner / AP

Union leaders hailed creation of the task force, to be chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris and to include every Cabinet member and heads of most large federal agencies, too. Biden Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, a member of Laborers Local 223 from Boston, will be vice-chair.

“Good news for workers!” Walsh’s union exulted in a tweet. Other praise rolled in, too. Biden’s task force’s main job is “mobilizing the full force of the federal government to propel worker organizing and activism,” Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher, said.

“From the minute President (Franklin) Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, corporations and their allies in Congress sought to undermine it,” the Communications Workers said.

“Although the act explicitly states the federal government should encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining, over time the relentless corporate campaign to disempower working people weakened” it. “And the NLRA and other laws have not been updated to reflect changes in the workplace.”

Biden has not only created the task force but also strongly endorsed the Protect the Right to Organize Act, CWA pointed out. It’s the most pro-worker labor law overhaul since the original 1935 law. That endorsement and Biden’s task force “send a strong message to the Senate that passing the PRO Act and other labor law reform bills is central to the president’s agenda.”

Biden’s task force “is ensuring working people have a seat at the table,” added Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry.

“Too many leaders have stood by while the rules that govern our economy were increasingly rigged in favor of billionaires and corporate CEOs, and against working people, especially the Black and brown workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic,” Henry stated.

“Everyone must have the opportunity to join a union, no matter where they live or what kind of work they do. That is the best way to raise wages, improve working conditions, create good union jobs, and begin to build a country where everyone can be respected, protected, and paid. Throughout our country’s history, unions have been the driving forces for advancements in workers’ rights and improved living standards for union and non-union workers,” Biden’s order says.

It mentions union wins for almost all workers. Those include higher pay, greater job security, safety and health laws, health insurance, retirement plans, “and protections from discrimination and sexual harassment for millions of workers across the country,” his order says.

Still need the PRO Act

The Biden administration has been eager to show itself as a friend of workers and unions. Here, First Lady Jill Biden speaks to farm workers at The Forty Acres, the first headquarters of the United Farm Workers, in Delano, Calif., March 31, 2021. | Mandel Ngan / Pool via AP

But not all workers, Henry pointed out, which is why Congress must enact the PRO Act. “We need a wholesale rewrite of labor laws, which were originally written and intended to exclude women, people of color, and immigrants. That transformation is absolutely critical to creating a country in which all of us can thrive, no exceptions,” she declared.

“Workers know that labor unions are a ticket out of poverty…but all too often their freedom to organize and bargain has been thwarted,” AFT’s Weingarten said. “The clearest line tracking the inversion from upward to downward mobility in the United States is this: As the percentage of workers in unions plummeted, inequality soared,” she added in an April 25 New York Times column.

“As our nation continues to recover from this (coronavirus) pandemic, ensuring workers have a voice on the job to negotiate for fair wages, safer working conditions, and better benefits will be key to building back better,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders, using Biden’s theme.

The task force should “address the urgent need of millions of American workers unable to exercise their right to join a union today because of artificial legal barriers and rampant union busting,” Government Employees President Everett Kelley said.

The Democratic-run House agreed with Biden, workers, and union leaders. It passed the PRO Act, for the second time in three years, on a virtual party-line vote, earlier this year.

Whether the Senate will get that message is up for grabs. Harris’s presence in the vice president’s chair gives Democrats control of the evenly split chamber.

But Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., won’t bring the PRO Act up until it has unanimous support from his 48 Democrats and both independents. Right now, it lacks three of the Democrats: Both Arizonans, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, and Virginian Mark Warner.

And even if Schumer brings it up, a GOP filibuster could kill it. That has sent workers out into the streets to pressure senators to vote for the PRO Act—and led Biden to create his task force, with some explicit ways he wants it to strengthen unions. The task force will flesh out the details.

It’ll also produce moves the federal government can take on its own to promote unionization and worker empowerment. They include:

  • Having the federal government “lead by example in encouraging union organizing and collective bargaining.”
  • Using an “all of government approach to mobilize federal programs, policies, and practices” to promote organizing and collective bargaining.

“For far too long the deck has been stacked against working people as corporations have sought to trample on the rights of workers to improve their working conditions,” Amalgamated Transit Union President John Costa pointed out. “This task force will work to ensure that federal policies and programs can be used to help workers organize and collectively bargain.”

Biden’s order goes beyond past Obama-era executive orders telling federal procurement officials to consider whether firms obey labor, tax, civil rights, and environmental laws before awarding contracts. It requires the task force to search out ways “to increase worker power in underserved communities,” notably communities of color, those excluded from current labor laws (such as farm workers, independent contractors, gig workers, and domestic workers), and those in states with worker repression laws.

It further mandates the force to propose practical ways to increase union membership. Public opinion polls show some 60% of workers would unionize if they had a fair shot at doing so without management interference, law-breaking, retribution, and intimidation.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.