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Biden is presiding over a labor renaissance
He's joining UAW workers on the picket line. But his solidarity goes beyond symbolism.
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President Joe Biden announced last week that he will join striking United Auto Workers (UAW) workers on the picket line in Michigan on Tuesday. This will likely be the first time a president has ever walked a picket line.
Biden is branding himself as a labor president. And his actions are not just symbolic. We are currently in the middle of an era of labor action and labor power unlike anything we have seen in decades.
This isn’t a story that has gotten a lot of mainstream discussion. Economic evaluations of Biden’s first term, positive or negative, mostly look at measures like inflation, wage growth, and jobs. Those metrics are important. But they don’t necessarily tell us what’s happening with labor organizing. And they don’t explain why the upsurge of labor is so important for the future of the economy, and the future of democracy.
Setting the stage for labor victory
The people mainly responsible for union and worker successes are unions and workers themselves. But government policies can help workers along or stifle them. Biden’s policies, by and large, have helped.
Biden’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has made a couple of extremely important pro-labor moves. It just ruled at the end of August that if employers are found to have committed unfair labor practices during a union recognition election — such as firing pro-union workers — the company must immediately recognize the union. The NLRB also curtailed employers’ ability to delay union elections.
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According to Harold Meyerson at the American Prospect, “Taken together, this one-two punch effectively makes union organizing possible again, after decades in which unpunished employer illegality was the most decisive factor in reducing the nation’s rate of private-sector unionization from roughly 35 percent to the bare 6 percent at which it stands today.”
Biden has called himself a “pro-union president,” and spoken out in favor of unions repeatedly. That may encourage labor actions, since unions don’t have to fear government animosity and interference as much as they might under a Republican administration.
But Biden’s most important boost for workers has been consistently low unemployment. As of August, the national unemployment rate had been below 4 percent for the longest stretch in more than 50 years. A record number of states had unemployment below 3 percent.
The numbers have been particularly impressive for groups that have traditionally had trouble accessing the labor market. Unemployment numbers for Black workers fell below 5 percent in April, the first time that had happened since the Department of Labor began tracking those numbers in 1972, 50 years ago. People with disabilities have also seen employment reach all-time highs, in part because of the greater acceptance of remote work post-pandemic, and in part because overall unemployment has been so low.
There’s a strong correlation between unemployment and union sentiment. Nate Silver at 538 found that for every point unemployment increases, support for unions falls by about 2 points. This isn’t surprising. When workers feel empowered, and feel like they have many job options, they are more confident about advocating for better pay and better working conditions. When workers are struggling to find jobs, they feel like bosses have all the power, and they’re reluctant to rock the boat.
Labor is ascendant
So at a time of record low unemployment, you’d expect workers to embrace unions. And that’s exactly what has happened. In the first six months of 2023, labor unions successfully organized 58,000 workers. That’s the second largest first-half organizing total since 2000.
As Vox reports, there’s lots of other good news for unions. Union election win rates are up to 76.6 percent, again a historic high. Strikes tripled in 2022, up to 78,000 from 26,500 in 2021. Americans’ approval of unions stands at a bit over 70 percent, the highest percentage since 1965.
There have also been a number of high-profile labor wins. Starbucks stores have seen a massive mobilizing effort despite the corporation’s unremitting union busting. Since December 2021, when the first Starbucks unionized, more than 260 stores across the country have followed suit.
Even more impressively, this August, 340,000 UPS workers won a five-year contract with pay increases and safety improvements, including desperately needed vehicle air conditioning and cargo ventilation. They also negotiated an end to forced overtime, and 7,500 new full-time UPS Teamster jobs.
Initially, the freight workers strike last December looked like it was a loss. More than 10,000 freight railroad workers threatened to strike, largely because the companies allowed them zero sick days. The Biden administration brokered a contract which included pay raises and other advances, but not sick days. Many progressives saw this, understandably, as a betrayal. But the unions, with White House support, and pressure from politicians like Bernie Sanders, kept negotiating. More than 60 percent of railroad workers now have sick days — not a complete win, but certainly a partial advance.
Most recently, this month the 146,000 member UAW declared a strike targeting all three major automakers — Ford, GM, and Stellantis. It’s the first time the UAW has struck all three automakers at once. It’s also using innovative tactics, targeting individual plants rather than the company as a whole.
The strategy has already paid dividends. Ford has substantially improved its contract offer, causing the UAW to pull back on strikes there, even as it has expanded the number of plant shutdowns at GM and Stellantis.
Finally, just last night, the Hollywood writers union, the WGA, reached a tentative agreement with studios after a bruising five month strike. Members still need to vote on the deal, but it is reported to resolve disputes over streaming residuals and to include guarantees to that AI will not be used to undercut writer jobs or compensation. The SAG-AFTRA actors union has been out on strike for three months, but there’s hope that the writer’s agreement will provide a blueprint for a successful deal there as well.
None of this guarantees that all labor actions will be successful. Corporations are stubborn, and are always reluctant to give in to labor demands. Workers, though, obviously see this moment as opportune. If they’re ever going to win concessions, they’re going to win them now.
RELATED FROM PN: Josh Gondelman on the writers' strike
We need labor power
Labor victories are important. In the first place, they directly affect worker compensation and well-being; unionized workers make 10.2 percent more than comparable non-union workers. The pay premium jumps to 17.3 percent for Black workers and 23.1 percent for Hispanic workers. In female-dominated service industries, union workers make 52.1 percent more than non-union workers. Union workers are 18.3 percent more likely to receive employer-sponsored health insurance than workers who aren’t in a union.
Unions benefit everyone, though, not just members. An Economic Policy Institute report found that states with the highest union densities had a 40 percent higher minimum wage than low union density states. Median income in union states was $6,000 higher than the national average. Union states are also more likely to pass paid sick leave laws and paid family and medical leave laws.
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This is all in part a way of saying that union states are states governed by Democrats rather than Republicans. Unions are in fact critical for Democratic victories. In the 2020 election, according to a CAP study, Biden relied heavily on union voters, who were more likely to vote for him across every demographic. Union women were 21 points more likely to vote for him than non-union women; union men were 13 points more likely to cast their ballots for Democrats than Republicans. The difference was especially pronounced with white union voters, who were 18 points more likely to vote for Biden than white non-union voters.
CAP added that these results echo academic analysis which has long shown that “unions both change voter preferences and can increase voter turnout.” Republicans like to cosplay as the party of the working class, but the truth is that when workers are politicized, they vote for the Democrats who (imperfectly, but more consistently than the GOP) support gains for them.
Ending a vicious circle
This is especially important because the labor movement has been in decline for decades. In the 1950s, 1 in 3 Americans was in a union. Now it’s 1 in 10.
Deindustrialization played a role in starting the slide. But as labor power fell, so did Democratic political power, allowing Republicans to pass anti-union “right-to-work” laws even in former union bulwarks like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana. That further eroded labor’s influence, weakening Democrats, weakening labor … and on and on.
Biden is not entirely responsible for the recent, tentative reversal in labor’s fortunes. Covid labor shortages are in part behind the low unemployment numbers. Republican internal dissension and general awfulness contributed to 2022 Democratic midterm victories, which allowed Michigan to finally undo its ugly right to work law.
But Biden deserves some credit for the labor renaissance — and he certainly deserves more than Donald Trump, who is half-heartedly trying to associate himself with worker power. Trump plans to address striking autoworkers in Michigan on Wednesday night, counterprogramming the Republican debate which he refuses to attend. But Trump hasn’t endorsed the strike, or spoken out for better labor conditions. He’s just denounced electric vehicles — which is at best irrelevant to a strike focused in part on ensuring the inevitable electric transition will be accomplished on labor’s terms. And of course when Trump was president he embraced the GOP’s anti-union policies.
Biden’s record is much more positive, and progressives and Democrats should talk about his successes in this area more. Biden himself obviously wants more attention on labor, which is why he’s joined the picket line. He knows, and is trying to highlight, that unions are vital to the well-being of the country and to the well-being of democracy. Under Biden, labor is finally showing some signs of building power anew. We can’t let the GOP undo it.
That’s it for today
We’ll be back with more Wednesday.