‘Actions speak louder than words’: Labour movement loses patience over Biden’s ‘lip service’

 (The Independent )
(The Independent )

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” But two years into his tenure, some in the labour movement are beginning to doubt his commitment to that lofty ambition.

From early in his presidency, Mr Biden demonstrated his support for the labour movement, both in word and deed. On his very first day in office, he placed a bust of labour leader Cesar Chavez behind his desk. Days later, he signed an executive order that restored collective bargaining power for federal employees. He also quickly threw his support behind the "Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act," a bill that was passed by the House that he said would "dramatically enhance the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions."

A self-described pro-union president taking up residence in the White House seemed serendipitous for organised labour, which was witnessing something of a renaissance. The coronavirus pandemic and associated economic crisis led to a surge in support for labour unions after several decades of decline. A Gallup poll in September 2020 found that some 65 per cent of Americans approved of labour unions – the highest it had been since 2003. That number has risen further still throughout Mr Biden’s presidency.

Millions of people who lost their jobs during the crisis learned the benefits of collective bargaining and a wave of high-profile organising efforts spread across the country. Mr Biden threw his support behind an effort by Amazon workers in Alabama to form a union – a battle that drew national attention due to the implications it could have for similar initiatives within the tech company nationwide.

But the scale of organising appeared to catch Mr Biden on the back foot. Unionisation efforts at other nationwide companies, among them Starbucks, did not receive the same support or attention, organisers say.

“I think Joe Biden could be doing so much more if he truly wanted to be a pro-union president, let alone the most pro-union president,” Jaz Brisack, a two-year Starbucks barista and organiser with Starbucks Workers United Upstate New York, told The Independent.

Although Mr Biden met with union organisers at the White House in May last year, among them representatives from the Starbucks union, Ms Brisack said Mr Biden’s efforts should go beyond words of support.

“I think most of his outreach towards labour has been photo-ops, when he could be using the bully pulpit of his presidency to actually call out companies that are committing these violations of labour law and human rights,” she added.

Perhaps the most crucial test of Mr Biden’s pro-union credentials came with the threat of a strike by railroad workers over contract negotiations.

Biden meets Amazon Labor Union president Christian Smalls at the White House on 5 May. (White House)
Biden meets Amazon Labor Union president Christian Smalls at the White House on 5 May. (White House)

After more than two years of negotiations between railway unions and rail companies, and later the White House, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate voted to increase wages for railway workers while blocking any potential strike action. In a separate vote, Republicans blocked the provision of seven days paid sick leave – a key demand and underlying cause for the threatened strike.

Mr Biden lobbied his own party to vote for the deal and praised the bill’s passage as “the right thing to do at the moment.” But railroad workers expressed anger following the vote, both with Republicans for voting en masse against their request for paid sick leave, and with Mr Biden for forcing through a deal that was rejected by the majority of union members, blocking strike action in the process.

Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United in Iowa, told The Independent in December that Mr Biden’s image as a pro-union president took a dent after his intervention.

“Don’t tell me who you are; show me. His actions speak louder than his words. And I don’t think this is a pro-labour decision – to put us back to work without addressing the issues that we were asking to be addressed,” Mr Grooters said.

In a statement released after the vote, Railway Workers United, a cross-union caucus of railway workers, described it as a “one-two punch at the hands of, first the Democratic Party; the second served up by the Republicans.”

“Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic, the essential nature of our work, the difficult and dangerous and demanding conditions of our jobs. Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class One rail carriers every time,” RWU General Secretary Jason Doering said in the statement.

Ms Brisack, the Starbucks organiser, said she believes Mr Biden’s pro-union claims were “always lip service.”

“I think if he truly had the values he said that he has, if he truly supports the right to organise, calling out these companies would be second nature,” she said.