On Sunday, President Joe Biden did something he hadn't heard from a President of the United States in a while: he offered a full affirmation of a worker's right to collective bargaining.
The White House released a video statement from Biden referring to an ongoing vote in Alabama to determine whether Amazon workers will unionize at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The Bessemer workers are in the middle of a seven-week vote that began in early February and will end in late March. It is the first time since 2014 that Amazon employees in America decide whether or not they want representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
"Workers in Alabama – and across America – are voting on whether to unionize in their workplace," Biden said in the video. "It is an extremely important decision that should be made without intimidation or threats from employers."
Workers in Alabama – and across America – are voting on whether to unionize in their workplace. This is an extremely important decision that should be made without intimidating or threatening employers.
Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. pic.twitter.com/2lzbyyii1g
– President Biden (@POTUS) March 1, 2021
Biden's words and their timing could have a huge impact.
"It's basically unprecedented in American history," Erik Loomis, a University of Rhode Island history professor who studies labor rights, told Vox. "Even the FDR did not really intervene at the moment of a union election with a direct explanation for a specific group of workers."
Biden has promised to be a friend for work
Biden, who was supported by several prominent unions during the election campaign, came into office and promised to be a union-friendly president. This video is a tremendous boost not only to the union effort in Alabama, but also to many more workers across the country who may be considering union formation. If Bessemer workers unionized, it could lead to a surge of organizing activity in other Amazon camps across the country.
What Biden said about workers' right to unionize was important. More importantly, however, what he said about what employers cannot do when workers decide whether to unionize or not. Alabama is a state with the right to work, which means that workers in a union do not have to pay dues – making union survival difficult.
"There should be no intimidation, coercion, threats, anti-union propaganda," Biden said in the video. “No manager should confront employees with their union preferences. It is not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even clearer: it is not up to an employer to decide either. The decision to join a union rests with the workers – period. "
Labor history expert Nelson Lichtenstein from the University of California in Santa Barbara tweeted about Biden's video: “This is new, nothing like it. Ashamed of Obama. "
As reported by the Washington Post and other outlets, Amazon has actively stopped the union push in Bessemer, posted anti-union flyers in the toilet cubicles and sent employees a text message asking them to vote against the formation of the union. Amazon hasn't returned Vox's request for comment on Biden's testimony.
The next four years of Biden's administration could be a turning point for organized labor in the United States. The president's early rhetoric and actions mark a major departure from his Republican predecessor, President Donald Trump, and from Democratic President Barack Obama, with whom Biden worked as vice president.
"We haven't met President Obama in the Oval Office in eight years," said North American President of Construction Unions, Sean McGarvey, in a recent interview with Vox. He and other union leaders met with Biden within 30 days of his presidency. "Never before has the word 'union' flowed so easily from the language of a political leader as it did with President Biden."
A year after the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, Biden could also give the opportunity to advocate increasing the number of unionized jobs as unions protect people's jobs during the coronavirus recession in 2020 have contributed. As Emily Stewart and Vox of Vox Rani Molla wrote:
Although the total number of unionized jobs fell by 444,000 in 2020, union jobs accounted for a larger proportion of total employment, 12.1 percent, half a percentage point more than in 2019. That's because people with union protection were more likely to keep their jobs as a non-union worker.
Of course, union leaders are still looking for specific actions Biden and his government are taking on labor issues, including whether they will be able to successfully pass a union-friendly law, the PRO law, or existing labor laws for investigation enforce companies trying to prevent their workers from forming unions.
Unions "go by what (presidents) do, not what they say," McGarvey told Vox.
Why Biden's words matter
On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified that Biden did not specifically incriminate the vote on the Amazon union (the president did not mention Amazon by name in the video).
"We are not commenting on specific cases where it is before the NLRB or could be before the NLRB, so we will not specifically charge Amazon." But by and large he believes that workers should have the right to organize; That's why he conveyed this in the video. “Even so, Biden went out of his way to mention Alabama, where it is difficult to evade union formation efforts in Bessemer.
Faiz Shakir, co-founder of progressive media company More Perfect Union, told Vox that prior to Biden's release of the video, he contacted White House chief of staff Ron Klain and encouraged the president to press for the Bessemer union.
"It means a lot that Joe Biden did this," Shakir told Vox. "You were grateful for the idea from the start."
Labor historians and activists told Vox that the substance of Biden's speech and when it is in the middle of the Bessemer vote is extremely important. In a series of tweets, Lichtenstein compared Biden to President Franklin Roosevelt, under whose presidency the unions flourished due to the progressive New Deal policies and the mass mobilization of Roosevelt during World War II.
"Biden's attack on union intimidation against workers by employers has been new to a president since the 1930s," Lichtenstein tweeted, adding that Biden's Department of Justice and the National Labor Relations Board must enforce it .
Loomis, the history professor, told Vox that this had additional meaning, given that unions had far more political power in the 1930s and 1940s than they do now. According to a 2016 article in the American Journal of Public Health, 35.7 percent of private sector workers were unionized in 1953. By 2020, that number had dropped to 6.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public sector employees in trade unions are more than five times as high, around 34.8 percent.
In other words, private sector unions had more political power in the 1940s and 1950s, which meant both Democratic and Republican presidents had to work with them and pay lip service if they wanted to win union voters.
Certainly organized labor is still a sought-after bloc in democratic politics, but the relatively low numbers in the private sector show that Biden is more responsive to a party push than to a demand from a single union, argued Loomis.
"In making this statement, Biden is responding to a general sentiment within the Democratic Party for Economic Justice," Loomis said. "It's even beyond the union, it's just the growing demand that you see in the democratic grassroots for an increased minimum wage."
But Shakir, who served as campaign manager for Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential election, says there are many innate similarities between Biden and Sanders on employment issues.
"(Biden) stood up as a union-friendly candidate and I remember making many stops along the way that he and Bernie often coordinated when speaking to these AFL-CIO and Teamster meetings," Shakir told Vox. "There is a lot of ideological camaraderie."