The pandemic has been brutal for the nation’s food and hotel workers, thousands of whom have lost their jobs. But that didn’t stop members of UNITE HERE Local 11 from going to work. They knocked on doors across Southern California and Arizona to get out the vote for Democrats, often while facing catastrophe at home. “We had people being evicted during our political campaign,” said Susan Minato, a co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11. In Arizona alone, members of UNITE HERE knocked on about 800,000 doors for Biden, helping him narrowly flip the state against Donald Trump — a victory for which the union claims partial credit.
Now that they’ve helped elect Biden, there is an end to Trump’s anti-worker regime in sight. But organized labor wants more than a return to the pre-Trump status quo. Unions want progress, and they have clout that they are prepared to wield. They turned out the vote for Democrats, earned major victories in the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and spent the better part of the pandemic protesting dangerous conditions on the job. Nationwide, strike and work-stoppage activity is on the rise. The future, however, will not arrive without struggle. The alliance between the labor movement and the Democratic Party has never been without friction. And inside the movement itself, union leaders are divided on issues like Biden’s Labor secretary and the necessity of some broader social reforms.
In conversations with Intelligencer, labor leaders and workplace policy experts said they’re reassured so far by Biden’s platform and rhetoric. He endorsed the PRO Act, which would significantly expand organizing rights in the workplace, and said he would also push legislation to “hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts.” He supports a $15 minimum wage, as unions and advocacy groups have demanded for years. In another plan targeted at essential workers, he pledged to double the number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors available to investigate dangerous workplaces.
But the eventual fate of Biden’s platform depends heavily on Congress. To sign the PRO Act, he needs the Senate, and he won’t get it unless Democrats win two runoff races in Georgia. In the House, a new Labor Caucus is preparing for all eventualities. Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin co-leads the caucus with Representative Donald Norcross of New Jersey, and he told Intelligencer that he sees some possibility for reform even if Democrats fail to take the Senate. “I would hope that whoever becomes Labor secretary, they immediately look at some of the actions taken by the Trump administration, and see what they can reverse,” Pocan said.
Biden’s reputation as a president for the working class will also hinge on one unanswered question: Will Biden’s emphasis on bipartisanship and moderate politics conflict with his progressive promises, including those he made to labor? The news that Bruce Reed, a longtime Biden adviser, is a top contender to lead the Office of Budget and Management may be an early sign that trouble awaits. A deficit hawk, Reed led the Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010 and helped craft Bill Clinton’s controversial 1996 welfare reform bill. Progressives have worried that a Biden budget influenced by Reed will fall short of the spending needed to offset the consequences of the pandemic.
Then there is the matter of Labor secretary, another possible source of dissension within the labor movement. Senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who garnered a significant amount of rank-and-file union support during his primary campaign for president, is reportedly campaigning for the job. Other potential candidates include Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and Julie Su, the secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency. Bloomberg Law reports that Norcross and Seth Harris, who served as acting Labor secretary under Obama, also have some union support.
But a handful of influential labor leaders and unions appear to be coalescing around two other candidates: Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston, and Representative Andy Levin of Michigan. The Communications Workers of America endorsed Levin, who formerly worked as an AFL-CIO economist and as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. Walsh, who once led the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council, has the support of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and allegedly of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. The federation itself, which represents around 12 million workers in total, has not agreed on an endorsement. A scheduled meeting for members of its political committee did not take place, Politico reports, partly because of tension over the Walsh-Levin divide. At a time when the face of labor is changing, the idea that the contest for Labor secretary may come down to a handful of white men could be difficult for some to stomach.
Tensions inside organized labor didn’t begin with the debate over Biden’s Labor secretary, and the movement’s ability to resolve its disagreements will help determine the course of its future. Right now, labor can be as divided as the rest of the American electorate. Some leaders and union locals want Medicare for All; others don’t. Some support the Green New Deal; others think it’s a job killer. Some called for the expulsion of police unions from the AFL-CIO after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Most have not.
On other issues, however, labor still speaks with one voice. If Democrats do take the Senate, unions will push hard, collectively, for the PRO Act. All want a robust stimulus package to help their members and everyone else stay out of poverty. Nelson’s union, for example, needs Congress to authorize another round of payroll support for the airline industry. And they all agree that no matter who Biden chooses as Labor secretary, there are steps that person, and the administration, could take to protect workers right away. Nelson told Intelligencer that she thinks Biden has the power to fire Peter Robb, the management-side attorney who now serves as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board before his term expires in another year. With Robb gone, the NLRB could restore union election rules that Trump overturned on taking office, and remove an obstacle to unionization in the process. “Just, fair election rules, that include an election within 15 days of filing [union authorization] cards, will be an extraordinary game changer for union organizing,” she explained.
“If Biden wants to deliver on all of the labor rights and good jobs that he has talked about, he needs a strong, mobilized and organized labor movement,” she added.
There are other policies the Biden administration could prioritize if it wants to deliver immediate relief to workers. “I think the first thing would be to reverse the Trump administration overtime rules,” said Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project. Doing so could restore around $1.4 billion per year in lost wages to workers, according to one estimate from the Economic Policy Institute. Biden’s Labor secretary pick could also issue, through OSHA, an emergency temporary infectious disease standard to protect workers from COVID-19 infection on the job, Dixon added; the Trump administration has neglected to do so. “It’s shameful that this hasn’t happened. But that is something that absolutely could be done and done soon,” she explained.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, agrees with Dixon that OSHA ought to be one of several priorities for Biden. “I think he’ll fight for OSHA to have the emergency health and safety standards that it needed months and months and months ago, that he’ll raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 an hour,” Weingarten said.
The crisis in OSHA illustrates the scale of the labor problems Biden inherits from Trump. Under Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, the agency has fallen to its lowest-ever level of inspectors, which severely limits its ability to investigate dangerous workplaces that may now put workers at risk for COVID infection. Though Scalia’s record is notable for its omissions like not filling OSHA vacancies — he’s also tried to wield the powers of his office to transformative effect. “There are workers who had the right to unionization under Obama, and Scalia attempted unilaterally to take those rights away,” Weingarten pointed out. One proposed Department of Labor rule, announced in September, would make it easier for businesses to classify gig workers as contractors rather than employees, and thus deprive them of many basic labor protections. Biden’s future Labor secretary could do the opposite. But until Biden announces his pick to the public, it’s difficult to know exactly what the president’s day-one labor agenda will look like, or whether labor will even get everything it expects from the administration.
Nevertheless, organized labor is used to working with the resources it has in circumstances that are less than ideal. No matter who becomes Labor secretary, or how Biden ultimately wields executive power, his administration will be an improvement on what precedes it — and a step, perhaps, to a less hostile climate for labor. Minato’s local endorsed senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for president, but once Biden was the nominee, she noted, “the staunchest Sanders people, the staunchest Warren people were like, ‘we need to move on.’”
Biden’s pro-labor rhetoric also matters, said Nelson, who is generally considered to be part of the movement’s left flank. “The reason I think it’s a game changer,” she explained, “is that everyone is paying attention. There’s a focal point. When workers are suddenly lifted up by the president of the United States, do not underestimate the kind of groundswell that creates.”
For now, labor and its political allies agree on another point: The work isn’t finished. When Intelligencer called, Minato was in the middle of packing for Georgia, where her union plans on helping Democrats win two more races. “We’re taking hundreds of workers from all over the country in UNITE HERE, and volunteers, all descending on Georgia,” she explained. The effort won’t just build on their canvassing for Biden, but on the years of painstaking effort required to build up their union in the first place.
“I feel very proud,” she said. “And I feel so hopeful. In a time when people are super-depressed and at home and afraid, I feel free and excited and inspired. And that’s what our workers feel. That’s why they’re going with us.”