March 2, 2021
New Orleans John Lewis of the United Mineworkers Union and one of the founders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO behind the hyphen in the AFL-CIO, famously had scores of organizers signing up tens of thousands after the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt claiming that “The President says join the union!”.
It’s taken almost eighty years but this time it was Joe, not John, and President Biden came close in a video message — ironically on Twitter — to inferring the same thing, since neither really said those words. As importantly, he pointed out that this is not just his administration’s policy and program, but is a fundamental part of the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore the policy of the entire federal government. That’s not just his opinion, that’s a fact.
The occasion may have been triggered by the mail balloting beginning for Amazon workers at the almost 6000-strong Bessemer, Alabama plant, but his clarifying call for workers to join and support unions speaks directly to the entire working class. He doesn’t mention Amazon, and that’s a good thing, because this applies to everyone whose shoulder is on the wheel, when he says,
Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and nonunion, but especially Black and Brown workers.
That was the heart of his message to workers, but he also has a message for employers as well, saying…
There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice. And it’s your right, not that of an employer, it’s your right.
His message here is interesting, and just might speak to a new set of understandings for union organizing. No intimidation, coercion, or threats are all subjects for a charge before the NLRB. Anti-union propaganda is a fair game now, and should be outlawed or at least restrained, because such boss-messages do intimidate, coerce, and threaten. Pointing out that joining a union is a workers’ right and choice, and not that of the employer, is also an important twist. Too often current interpretations of US labor law, pretend that this is an even fight, when the employer controls the workplace, most communications, and the resources in a campaign that dwarf what the union can assemble in an election.
Biden’s emphasis on the union’s ability to protect against racial discrimination on the job and sexual harassment is also very significant, even though all unions may not be quite as ready to embrace this responsibility as he claims. He’s not hiding behind the long delays and toothlessness of the EEOC. He’s speaking to his base and the critical base his party wants to build and maintain. He’s also sending a message to construction and building trades that they better step up their game. He’s close to them, but he recognizes in this statement that many of them were way too transactional and cozy when playing footsie with former president Trump.
The media is talking about the fact that this is the most pro-union statement by a president since Harry Truman was in the office. One columnist quotes a Harvard professor claiming that presidents Carter and Clinton were anti-union. That’s not true at all, but to the degree they embraced neoliberalism, it too often ended up much the same and created a false sense of countervailing power that doesn’t exist in the workplace. Biden seems to be issuing a clarion call that curtseying before the altar of neoliberalism is also dead, and that’s also calling up the tune for a happy dance for all of us as well.