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Biden’s Amazon Speech


I didn’t comment on this yesterday because I was busy, among other things, doing media spots about it. But if you haven’t seen Biden’s speech in support of the Amazon workers, watch it.

It’s really quite remarkable. How remarkable is it? No president has ever made such a direct statement to support workers in a union campaign. Ever. Not FDR. Not Truman. Most definitely no other Democratic president Very much not Obama. If you want to argue this is pretty weak sauce that this is the strongest statement a president has ever made in support of a specific union campaign, well, OK. But it is what it is. This is as good as it has ever gotten in American history.

A few Twitter people are grumbling that Biden didn’t say “Amazon.” Well, that’s just silly. You know what you don’t want the president doing? Interfering in a union election. He made it clear. He supports workers in Alabama. He supports workers to make a democratic choice without employer interference. This is the exact statement you want a president to make here. Respect democracy. Oppose employer intimidation. Make it as clear as possible without interference.

Yes, Biden has more of a soft spot for unions, much more so than Carter, Clinton, or Obama. But Biden is also fundamentally a transactional politician. Unions have far less power today than they did in 1960. So it’s not as if Biden is doing this as a response to union power. The Retail Workers aren’t even a big union. He’s doing it because a decade of activism has moved the party significantly to the left on economic issues. This is great news. We can expect much more of this.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Biden can make all the difference in the world. Does him speaking in favor of the Amazon workers even help them win? Given who almost all the white workers there voted for in November, there’s reason to be a little questioning of it. Moreover, the real reform would be the PRO Act, but that has a 0% chance of surviving a filibuster. The president has limited power! There will be good NLRB appointees, etc. That’s great. But any president can only do so much unless Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema begin to understand how government works.

Still, such a statement, when taken into historical context, is quite meaningful. A quick media rundown of what I had to say about it. Scott linked to the WaPo piece but I was also quoted it (the fact that no one seemed to notice this in the comment thread yesterday is superb evidence for the fact that no one reads anything before pontificating in support of whatever points they probably wrongly have.)

“It’s almost unprecedented in American history,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. “We have the sense that previous presidents in the mid-20th century were overtly pro-union, but that really wasn’t the case. Even FDR never really came out and told workers directly to support a union.”

Loomis said the video was a sign of the ways the Democratic Party has moved to the left on issues of economic justice in the past decade.

“It’s a signal that the Biden administration is listening to the left flank of the Democratic Party,” he said. “It’s governing like liberals have wanted a Democratic president to govern for a long time. He’s not Bernie Sanders, but he sees where the Democratic Party is and he’s moving in that direction as quickly as is politically feasible.”

I then talked to Vox:

Biden’s words and their timing could have a big impact.

“It’s basically unprecedented in American history,” Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies labor rights, told Vox. “Even FDR did not really intervene at the moment of a union election with a direct statement for a particular set of workers.”

Loomis, the history professor, told Vox that there’s added significance because unions had far more political power back in the 1930s and 1940s than they currently do. In 1953, 35.7 percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions, according to a 2016 American Journal of Public Health article. By 2020, that number dropped to 6.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public-sector workers in unions are over five times that number, around 34.8 percent.

In other words, private-sector unions had more political power back in the 1940s and 1950s, meaning that both Democrat and Republican presidents had to work with them and pay lip service if they wanted to win over union voters.

Certainly, organized labor is still a sought-after bloc within Democratic politics, but its relatively low numbers in the private sector show that Biden is responding to a push from the party’s base, rather than a demand from an individual union, Loomis argued.

“By Biden making this statement, he’s responding to an overall feeling in the Democratic party for economic justice,” Loomis said. “It’s even beyond the union, it’s simply that growing demand you’re seeing in the Democratic base for a raised minimum wage.”

Finally, I spoke to Talking Points Memo:

Biden’s move is a particularly “interesting moment” for a “fundamentally transactional politician,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. He noted that the Democratic Party has gradually moved into a fuller embrace of issues such as a $15 minimum wage and the labor movement in recent years.

“It shows just how far activists have pushed the Democratic Party over the last 10 years,” Loomis said. “He’s comfortable making that kind of a statement, knowing it’s going to be supported by the party.

”Even as union membership climbed through the middle of the last century, Loomis pointed out, organized labor faced powerful political headwinds: He pointed to the passage of the Taft-Hartly Act in 1947 that restricted the power and activities of labor unions at the “very peak of union power.” The Taft-Hartly Act was pushed through by Congress over the veto of then-President Harry Truman.

Even then, Loomis said, organized labor didn’t have enough congressional support to prevent Taft-Hartley from becoming law. “And the reason for this is that because even at its peak — and it’s mostly the same today — unions are mostly concentrated in about 10 states, and so they don’t have the senators. They don’t have the congressmen, even in the Democratic Party, who rely on that.”

This basically covers it I think. Biden’s statement is not going to change the world. But nothing a president could say would. It’s still a more direct statement in the middle of a union campaign than anything ever before in American history. And that’s a heck of a thing.

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