Biden’s Pro-Union Push Has Sparked the Conversation America’s Economists Need to Have
Earlier this month, America was reminded what it felt like to be shocked by an unexpected tweet from their President. This time, though, progressive voters were able to breathe a sigh of relief rather than the knee-jerk reaction of cringing they developed under former President Trump. Amazon’s warehouse workers were attempting to unionize and President Joe Biden was supporting this right.
This feeling of not having to brace for impact every time the leader of the free world presses the tweet button is new and quite refreshing. Under Trump, it was all too easy to forget that firing high-level cabinet members and threatening nuclear war with dangerous world leaders over Twitter was not normal. When Biden took office, it took almost two months for one of his Tweets to make headlines. The announcement that he was in the corner of a large group of workers attempting to form a union. Following the tweet, the White House issued a detailed statement in which Biden “strongly encouraged” the House to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021 on the basis that it would “dramatically enhance the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”
It seems inevitable that Biden would have to prioritize strengthening unions as a cornerstone of economic policy in the early stages of his presidency. He made it a pillar of his campaign, promising to be the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” When he tweeted his support of Amazon’s workers, union activist and historian Erik Loomis tweeted the following:
Biden wasted little time implementing policies designed to strengthen the rights of both unions and workers. Shortly after taking office, he signed an executive order that eliminated Schedule F, the anti-work bill signed into effect by Trump that effectively stripped away the civil service protections of all public sector employees in roles involving policy or advocacy. His nominee for Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, first rose to prominence helping build and establish Boston’s trade unions before being elected the city’s mayor. When compared to previous Democratic Presidents, Biden certainly seems to be making good on his promise, although that bar is far from high. President Jimmy Carter’s deregulatory policies on trucking and airline industries proved detrimental to America’s unions, while neither President Clinton nor Obama prioritized pro-labor measures during their eight years in office. In fact, not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has there been a president who actively embraced pro-union and labor policies as a bedrock of his administration’s economic policy.
This parallel between Biden and Roosevelt should remind us why it is important for a president to take a pro-union stance. When the leader of the free world focuses on a specific point of policy, it inevitably prompts the national conversation to focus on it. As America’s economists struggle to combat the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, they would do well to remember the historic importance of unions.
Not since Roosevelt’s time in office, has the strengthening of unions been as vital for spurring economic growth as it is today. In 1935, FDR signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), in effect granting federal protection to all private-sector workers seeking to unionize. A cornerstone of the New Deal, the NLRA helped more workers unionize and build a better life, and through it, a better economy for everyone. The nonpartisan Center for American Progress has conducted extensive research on the vast economic benefit provided by unions. Their research, along with the research of others, has shown, unionization leads to wage growth and rewards workers for higher productivity rates. As workers’ wages rise, so does their purchasing power, enabling them to further support other businesses. These benefits were not unique to white workers; communities of color also benefited from union growth as well. We should also not forget that unions are fundamental to our democracy, as they can lead to workers having a voice in local political matters and can even lead to the passing of legislation designed to benefit all Americans. When workers are able to stand together and raise their collective voices — the exact purpose served by a strong union — it can shift the balance of power between workers and corporations.
America’s unions didn’t just build the structures and machines that we still use today — they built our middle class. When their collective power declined throughout previous decades, America’s middle class declined along with it. Organizations such as the Economic Policy Institute have recognized the power of unions before, but lately, others such as the Oregon Center for Public Policy have joined the conversation by providing research of their own. It is exactly the conversation we need to be having as we look to “build back better”, to repair the damage done to our economy during the Covid-19 pandemic and before. Biden’s support of unions isn’t simply a ploy to appeal to constituents — he seems to understand their power and importance as institutions of economic growth and development. If he wants to take a step further, he could issue a bill to stop government agencies from awarding federal contracts to anti-union companies such as Amazon and Google. For now, though, economists and policy-makers are finally being forced to tackle the issue of unions and how they can be strengthened. If our president’s emphasis on this continues, we could finally see the change we need.