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The Biden Administration’s Goals on Labor

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Thanks to the commenters who pointed out this John Nichols conversation with Kamala Harris about the administration’s labor goals. Harris has played a pretty big role here, one of the few relatively public assignments her less than warm relationship with the president has provided. Interestingly, she hadn’t really played up her labor credentials much in the past, but she sure does here and it’s quite interesting. But the real value here is the larger attempts of the administration to move policy more in favor of workers than any in a very long time.

The Biden-Harris administration is clearly engaged with workers and unions. But the full measure of that engagement must take the form of tangible achievements—some of which can be easily accomplished, some of which could fail as badly as labor-law reform initiatives of Democratic administrations going back to the 1960s.

The current administration has moved on a number of fronts to implement the task force’s vision as outlined by Harris and Walsh, particularly when it comes to making it easier for federal workers to organize. “The federal government is the largest employer in the country, right, so you are talking about a lot of people. Plus, we could [make people aware of their organizing and collective bargaining rights] as part of our powers as the executive,” said Harris.

“When we show what an employer like the federal government can do in the best interest of the work and our mission, workers in the private sector can point to it and say, ‘This is not beyond the imagination, that these types of protections can be in place. Look, it’s happening right over there,’” she explained.

Another major initiative involves making the Department of Labor into an actual resource for workers who want to join unions, with a new Worker Organizing Resource and Knowledge Center and initiatives to prevent retaliation against workers who exercise their rights. “After 60 years of attacks on the right of working-class people to organize, they’re making it clear that it is the policy of the United States government that workers have a right to organize,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “And they’re backing that up with appointments, executive orders, and policies.”

That’s not to say that this administration has satisfied everyone who wants to improve conditions for workers. Thoughtful critics argue that, during the debate on the American Recovery Act, the White House and Senate Democrats folded too quickly on the fight to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Activists also worry that the administration has not fought hard enough to address abuses in the gig economy, where app-based workers are classified as “independent contractors” and left with limited options in the face of exploitation. A particular frustration was with the failure of the Democratic-controlled Senate to approve the nomination of David Weil—who has warned that rideshare and food-delivery corporations are eroding labor protections—to serve as head of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. (West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Arizona Democrats Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema joined Republicans in blocking the nomination.) In response to frustration with progress on these issues, Harris said the White House has met with gig workers and is amplifying information about their right to organize, and the task force’s February report recommends “vigorous” Department of Labor action to “prevent and remedy the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.”

The subtext here is that it all requires wrangling Democratic senators to do the right thing, which is hard to do and not only because of Manchin and Sinema. I’d guess there’s probably about 40-42 votes right now for the PRO Act, which means 8 Democrats who would be very hesitant–those two, Kelly, Warner (who I suspect would outright vote no), Carper, Tester, a few others. So it’s not easy. But the administration is mostly a doing a good job here and deserves credit for what it has been able to accomplish.

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