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Can Biden Be a Labor President?


Stephen Greenhouse has more on Biden’s pro-Amazon workers statement and the possibilities and limitations of his presidency on labor issues.

But while giving a pro-labor speech is one thing, delivering on policy is another, Professor Jones noted. Walking a consistent pro-union walk may prove hard for Mr. Biden; some Democratic centrists as well as corporate America will no doubt push him not to be too pro-labor. So far, though, Mr. Biden has been going beyond rhetoric — as far as Congress will let him, at least.

For instance, he’s the first Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson to nominate a former union leader to be secretary of labor: His nominee, Marty Walsh, used to head Boston’s federation of building trades unions before becoming that city’s mayor. Mr. Biden championed a $15 minimum wage from his first days as president, incorporating a phased-in version into his $1.9 trillion Covid relief package. It didn’t make it into the final package, but he may use executive action to install a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors. On his first day in office, Mr. Biden also took the unorthodox step of firing Peter Robb, the National Labor Relations Board’s strongly anti-union general counsel, long before his term was up.


There are many pro-labor things Mr. Biden can do even without Congress. If he wants to definitively make himself the most pro-union president we’ve ever seen, he could issue an executive order that bars awarding of federal contracts to companies that, like Amazon, fight against unionization. He can appoint N.L.R.B. members who would make it far harder for Uber and other companies to declare their workers independent contractors, who are not allowed to unionize.

He can ensure, as he has promised, that his $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan creates hundreds of thousands of “good-paying union jobs.” But including that, in itself, won’t ensure Senate passage. Most pro-labor legislation will face a Republican filibuster: paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, a $15 minimum wage and the PRO Act. But a robust flurry of executive actions is still a poor substitute for broader changes approved by Congress.

Indeed, whether Mr. Biden becomes “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” as he has proclaimed, could turn on whether he and Senate Democrats eliminate the filibuster.

Things are going to get real repetitive around here until Manchin and Sinema and friends decide to do something about the filibuster. There’s simply just so much Biden can do so long as it exists. No other president could do more while it exists. Even a modified filibuster is probably unlikely to be modified in way that really allows labor legislation to get through. So we will see.

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