Organized Labor Shouldn’t Expect Much From President Joe Biden

Joe Biden says he’ll be a pro-labor president. But his funding from anti-union corporate executives, his Obama administration record, and his flirtation with Silicon Valley all point to a gap between rhetoric and reality.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets workers as he tours the Fiat Chrysler plant in Detroit, Michigan on March 10, 2020. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

“Joe is a union guy. Pass it on,” tweeted the AFL-CIO on Election Day 2020. The labor federation, and many of the unions that comprise it, went all-in on Joe Biden, getting out the vote for the Democratic Party presidential candidate as well as donating funds toward the election effort. (Some independent unions, such as the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, or UE for short, were less enthusiastic about Biden, but nonetheless focused their efforts on removing Trump from office.)

But what does “Joe is a union guy” mean? After all, while Biden often touts his hardscrabble roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he has never been a member of a labor union. He voted for the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), which the AFL-CIO ardently opposed, and supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Almost immediately upon reaching the White House, he and President Barack Obama burned the unions: after campaigning on passing a “card check” bill, a labor priority that would make it easier for workers to join unions, they abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which included the reform.

So, what can the labor movement expect from a Biden administration?

If we judge from the president-elect’s campaign website, the answer is: a lot. “Everything that defines what it means to live a good life and know you can take care of your family — the 40 hour workweek, paid leave, health care protections, a voice in your workplace — is because of workers who organized unions and fought for worker protections,” reads the opening of the labor platform. Biden promises to support the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a labor law reform bill that would increase protections for labor organizing and collective bargaining and effectively prohibit state right-to-work laws. The bill passed in the House of Representatives in February by a vote of 224 to 194, but given Democrats’ poor performance in this cycle’s Senate races, its chances of passing into law are slim — even in the most favorable circumstances, it would take a serious commitment from Biden to give it even a fighting chance.

Biden’s platform goes even further than the PRO Act. As the president-elect said at an AFL-CIO event on Labor Day, he vows to be “the strongest labor president you’ve ever had.” He claims he will enact “legislation to impose even stiffer penalties on corporations and to hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts, including criminally liable when their interference is intentional.” This is in addition to supporting a $15 minimum wage, as well as promising to create “a cabinet-level working group that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining in the public and private sectors.”

These pledges, if kept, could make a real difference for the US labor movement, which, facing a lavishly funded opposition dead set on its defeat, has been in decline for decades. Such a possibility is reflected in unions’ relationships with Biden. As Politico reports, senior union leadership is working with Biden’s transition team: Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are on the team’s advisory board. Other union leaders, such as Jennifer Abruzzo from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and Shaun O’Brien from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), are on his Labor Department transition team.

There is also the matter of who Biden will choose to head the Department of Labor. Trump’s choice, Eugene Scalia, did his best to undo worker protections; who Biden picks will send a message about his administration’s orientation to labor. So far, names that have been floated for the position include Sen. Bernie Sanders — who has reportedly sought the job — Boston mayor Marty Walsh, Rep. Andy Levin, and Secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency Julie Su.

Any of these choices would be a major improvement on Scalia, of course, but there is another possible candidate who, if chosen, would signal opposition to organized labor: Seth Harris. After serving as deputy labor secretary during the Obama administration, Harris went on to write gig economy companies’ legal strategy for misclassifying workers. California’s Proposition 22, which allows tech companies to exempt workers from labor law protections, is his handiwork. Although Biden says he opposes Prop 22, Harris is currently on Biden’s labor department transition team. Indeed, Silicon Valley in general is on the transition team — no surprise, given Kamala Harris’s extensive ties to the tech industry. Allowing tech higher-ups anywhere near the Department of Labor should be treated as an unambiguous “fuck you” to workers everywhere.

Biden’s record for the past few decades suggests further cause for skepticism. As labor historian Gabriel Winant writes in the Guardian, “At no point in his career has Biden proved willing to take the slightest political risk on behalf of workers. His appearances in union halls occur when he needs something from labor.” Winant finds only two instances of Biden walking picket lines, both during his presidential campaigns. The EFCA fiasco stands out, too — workers should look at Biden’s record of fighting for them (or, more accurately, not fighting for them) before believing that his promises are anything more than campaign rhetoric.

Indeed, even as Biden cloaked himself in unions on the 2020 campaign trail, his first major fundraiser was cohosted by an attorney at Cozen O’Connor, a union-busting law firm. The Democratic Party remains a party of capital, and Biden received massive donations from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. If we want to predict how a politician will govern, the smart money is on, well, tracking the money.

Rhetoric to the contrary, Biden, when left to his own devices, is no “union guy,” no matter how often he plays one on television. Union leaders will prioritize access to his administration, but they should remember that talk is cheap, and the labor movement should have no illusions about the next four years. As is the case on the shop floor, workers are going to have to fight for every gain.