Biden’s platform for workers: Labor law-breakers to jail
The Biden Harris team promises backing for a strong pro-labor program if they are elected Nov. 3. | Michael Wyke/AP

WASHINGTON —A $15 federal minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, no trade pacts like the job-losing old NAFTA, support for public schools and teachers, repeal of so-called “Right To Work” laws.

And enacting the Protect the Right to Organize Act with a twist: Real tough penalties for labor law-breakers, including “criminal penalties” for repeat corporate honcho offenders.

Sounds like a workers’ wish list, right? Well, yes, but it’s also what Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has promised to push if he wins the White House this fall.

Biden, Democratic President Barack Obama’s vice president, included all these promises and more in a combination of answers to questionnaires from several unions, plus the joint platform Biden’s team worked out with backers of his last remaining primary foe, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., the Senate’s most consistent backer of workers’ causes.

About the only promise Biden has uttered on the campaign trail that isn’t in the documents is his vow to make consistent labor law-breakers among the nation’s bosses take “perp walks” to jail.

But he promised the Steelworkers, in written responses, that his version of a rewritten pro-worker labor law “would hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts, including criminally liable when their interference is intentional.”

How successful Biden will be in enacting his pro-worker platform, if he beats GOP incumbent Donald Trump, is the $64 question. As Obama’s VP, Biden was in charge of trying to get the last big labor law rewrite, the Employee Free Choice Act, through a balky Senate.

Three factors doomed EFCA. The moral and political leader and the strongest pro-worker lawmaker on the key Senate Labor Committee, Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.—who knew how to shepherd such controversial legislation through–died. His successor, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, lacked Kennedy’s clout. And a Republican took Teddy’s seat.

The second was that the nation’s plutocrats and corporate poohbahs, marshaled by the Chamber of Commerce, staged a multimillion dollar ad blitz of big lies against EFCA.

And the third and most important factor was that Obama made enacting the Affordable Care Act his top priority, and pulled Biden off EFCA and into that fight. Obama used Biden’s credibility from his long Senate career to jam the ACA through—and Biden later caught hell from union leaders for the abandonment.

Beyond the PRO Act

In the joint platform and his answers to the questionnaires, though, Biden’s gone even farther than the EFCA and the PRO Act.

Biden was particularly emphatic on strengthening collective bargaining and the right to organize. He not only strongly backed PRO Act, but also advocated repeal of the section of the 1947 GOP-enacted Taft-Hartley Act that allows so-called state “right to work” laws.

Those laws, originally dreamed up by racist bosses and magnates in the segregated South to pit white against Black workers, have spread to more states ever since the 2010 GOP sweep of governorships and state legislatures. But voters turn negative on right-to-work at the ballot box: Two-to-one against in Missouri and 61% against 39% for in Ohio since 2010.

“Trump and the Republican leadership think this country was built by CEOs and hedge fund managers,” Biden told the Steelworkers. “But they’re wrong. Our country was built, quite literally, by hard-working Americans” and especially union members.

“Today, however, there’s a war on organizing, collective bargaining, unions, and workers,” he continued. “It’s been raging for decades, and it’s getting worse with Donald Trump in the White House.

“Employers repeatedly interfere with workers’ efforts to organize and collectively bargain while raking in billions of dollars in profits and paying CEOs tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. That will change under a Biden administration…The federal government should not only defend workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively, but also encourage it.”

That means not just writing so-called “card check recognition” of unions into law, when the union collects an independently verified majority of election authorization cards at a workplace. It also means banning bosses’ “captive audience” meetings, which workers must attend or be disciplined.

“And I’ll ensure workers can exercise their right to strike without fear of reprisal and institute financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, including firing or otherwise retaliating against workers,” Biden pledged.

Current penalties against labor law-breakers are so low—back pay for an illegally fired worker, minus that worker’s earnings in the interim—that employers find labor law-breaking is profitable. It costs them little and gains them much, in chilling organizing drives.

Extending labor law coverage

Biden would broaden labor law to cover historically unprotected groups of workers, notably “independent contractors,” farmworkers, and home health care workers, as well as giving federal workers more rights and enacting a law ordering all states to recognize and bargain with unions representing first responders.

That’s a big cause of Biden’s first union backer, the Fire Fighters, with whom Biden has had a long personal relationship. When he came to IAFF’s legislative conference early this year, he was greeted by a crowd waving yellow-and-black signs and yelling, “Run, Joe, Run!”

As for the other “out” groups, race excluded the farmworkers and home health care workers. People of color are the overwhelming majority in both groups and both are rock bottom on the U.S. pay scale because they lack worker rights. But if FDR hadn’t excluded them when Congress considered the original Wagner Act in 1935 and especially the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, racist Southerners would have talked both laws to death via filibuster.

And Biden would also go after a particular worker bugaboo: Union-busters. He promises his version of labor law reform would legally force them to publicly disclose how much they earn and from whom. Unions must publicly disclose every penny of their spending, from paychecks to paper clips, under the GOP-passed 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act. Trump wants to extend that disclosure to union-related groups, too. But he won’t touch the union-busters.

Biden also promised to put enforcement “teeth” behind federal labor law, by making labor law-breaking a virtual litmus test about whether a firm could bid for and get federal contracts or not. That’s important: Federal pacts were worth $562 billion in fiscal 2018 alone, the last year of available data. And that was long before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Midway through his second term, Obama ordered federal contracting officers to consider denying dollars to firms that weren’t neutral in organizing campaigns, that didn’t pay their workers at least $10.10—the figure he sought for the minimum wageand that didn’t pay their taxes, obey civil rights laws, labor laws or environmental laws. Trump dumped that order within days of entering the Oval Office.

Biden would restore that Fair Play and Safe Workplaces executive order, and that’s only a start, he told USW.

“I will aggressively pursue employers who violate labor laws, participate in wage theft, or cheat on their taxes by intentionally misclassifying employees as ‘independent contractors,’” who aren’t covered by labor laws, including the right to organize, he promised.

“I will ensure federal dollars do not flow to employers who engage in union-busting activities, participate in wage theft, or violate labor law. I will institute a multi-year federal debarment for all employers who illegally oppose unions, building on debarment efforts pursued in the Obama-Biden administration.” Debarring means banning firms from bidding.

Biden’s balancing act

While all of this satisfies workers’ demands, Biden also had to reach out to the Sanders supporters, and that involved a delicate balancing act. The stumbling block was the Green New Deal. Key sections of the Sanders coalition threatened to sit out the election unless Biden backed the GND.

The threat is credible, as exit polls show approximately 12% of Sanders’s supporters in his 2016 primary race against Hillary Clinton were so disgusted  by her centrism and establishment backing that they did not vote for her in November.

But if Biden openly backed the GND, the building trades unions, threatened to sit out in turn. They’re still leery. When the AFL-CIO endorsed Biden on May 26, North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey said they’d make a decision later.

The construction workers’ fear: The GND’s emphasis on total independence from fossil fuels would cost Laborers, Utility Workers, Iron Workers and similar trades hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Sanders’s supporters on the joint committee helped pull Biden in a progressive direction. They didn’t get adoption of the GND or their other favorite cause, Medicare For All. National Nurses United and many other unions backed both.

But Biden approved the GND’s principles of carbon neutrality with a deadline of 2050—and a promise that under a Biden administration, “green” jobs would be union jobs, by law. Right now, 5% are. The latest figures, for 2019, show 12.6% union density in construction.

Biden also didn’t go for Medicare For All, which Obama quickly dumped in the battle a decade ago over the Affordable Care Act. But Biden backs the “public option,” a weaker version, to bring more competition to the nation’s rapacious insurers. Obama dumped it, too, to get the insurers to back the ACA. Breaking with the rest of the corporate class, they did.

Biden also said he would not try to bring back a big ACA stumbling block for workers, the so-called and now-dead “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health care plans.

All this, plus Biden’s opposition to the Trump regime push for vouchers for parents of private school kids—a bugaboo for teachers’ unions—and his vow not to negotiate any future trade pacts without strong and enforceable worker rights, left unions mostly satisfied.

“Joe Biden is a lifelong supporter of workers and has fought his entire career for living wages, health care, retirement security and civil rights,” said Federation President Richard Trumka in announcing the decision on May 26.

“Our members know Joe has done everything he could to create a fairer process for forming and joining a union, and he is ready to fight with us to restore faith in America and improve the lives of all working people.” The Fed then blasted Trump’s record.

“Trump’s record of slashing rules designed to protect us on the job, cutting workplace health and safety inspectors to their lowest level in history, and taking away overtime pay from millions of workers are just a few ways working people have been hurt by the current administration,” Trumka said before a short discussion of workers, Biden, and the coronavirus.

“Just imagine what we can accomplish with an ally in the White House.”


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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