If words were actions and promises were deeds, Joe Biden would perhaps be one of the most pro-union presidents to ever sit in the Oval Office. According to the Washington Post, Biden made almost as many pro-union statements in his first 99 days in office as Barack Obama did in his entire first term, and far more than Presidents Bush or Trump. Since taking office, he has spoken out in favor of the unionization efforts at Amazon and has criticized the use of scabs to break the Kellogg’s strike. On the campaign trail, he rallied with striking Stop and Shop workers in Massachusetts and put forward a wide range of legislative reforms supposedly designed to improve the position and increase the power of labor and the lives of working people. Along with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Biden has promised to “check the abuses of corporate power over unions,” to “encourage and incentivize union organizing,” to “increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour,” and to “increase workplace safety and health,” among a number of other proposals and policies. But words are, as they say, cheap. Despite all the rhetoric, and there has been a lot, the President has so far failed to deliver on practically any of these promises, and looking ahead, it seems very unlikely that he ever will. Worse, in stereotypical Biden fashion, the president has already back-tracked, glad-handed, back-patted, and otherwise compromised his way out of almost every chance he has had to actually improve the lives of working people.
That Biden has failed to deliver on this front is no big mystery to anyone who has paid any attention to the history of U.S. labor politics. Like so many Democrats before him, Biden needed labor to win, but in a period of radical unrest and instability — and in the midst of a battle over how and when to return to work — any attempts to rebuild the legitimacy of the U.S. state and reopen the economy would have to involve the further co-optation of labor. And this is exactly what Biden did. Using the bureaucratic leaderships of the nation’s biggest unions, including the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers, Biden was able to redirect labor’s anger away from workplace struggles and into get out the vote efforts designed not only to win the election, but to further bind union leaders and activists to the party. This is one of the reasons why, until recently, we have seen so little criticism of Biden from labor, despite the total lack of movement on issues most important to unions and working people. And this is why unions and their members must break with the Democrats if they ever wish to rebuild a fighting labor movement.
A Litany of Failures
Biden came to office with a laundry list of supposedly pro-labor legislation, almost all of which has either been defeated, compromised, or remains unrealized. Though he engaged in some high level firings of Trump labor appointees shortly after taking office, and though he has managed to pass some legislation that has received applause from the labor bureaucracy, such as the massively watered-down infrastructure bill, the general consensus, even among the bourgeois press, is that Biden has largely failed to deliver for labor and working people. And this failure is by design. While it’s tempting to blame the Republicans, or Joe Manchin, or Kyrsten Sinema for Biden’s failures, the fact is, his promises to labor, like other Democratic presidents before him, were never meant to be realized, but are part of a generational co-optation of the union movement by the apparatuses of the state that has left working people with practically no independent institutions to represent their interests.
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At the center of Biden’s labor policy is the long-stalled, and likely now dead, Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). Hailed by labor bureaucrats and reformists alike, The PRO Act is effectively a collection of revisions to the National Labor Relations Act, and if passed, the legislation would place unions even further under the control and management of the U.S. state, a problem regularly overlooked by its proponents on the Left. However, it does have some provisions that would make unionization efforts easier. In particular, the PRO Act would help to eliminate independent contractor status of employees at companies like Uber and Door Dash; it would limit the ability of employers to force workers to attend anti-union meetings; and it would make first contracts somewhat easier to negotiate. Democrats sat on the bill for all of 2019, and it wasn’t until after Biden’s election that it narrowly passed the House. The bill, which has been residing in limbo ever since, has yet to be brought before the Senate, where it would need to get 60 votes to pass. Indeed, like its more robust forerunner, the Employee Free Choice Act, touted first by Barack Obama, and then Hillary Clinton, the PRO Act may never pass.
Meanwhile, the long-awaited and hotly-debated infrastructure bill — which was supposed to include significant gains for labor in the form of high paying union jobs to build bridges, tunnels, and green energy — was reduced by more than half of its original proposed budget before being passed. The stripped down bill, originally intended to include more than two trillion dollars in investment, now includes a little more than $500 billion in new spending spread out over 10 years. This is less than seven percent of the U.S. Defense Budget request for 2022 alone. Despite the many compromises needed to get the bill through Congress, it still provides very little for green infrastructure, while giving billions in subsidies to big businesses. Worst of all, it includes provisions for increased privatization of U.S. infrastructure in the form of “asset recycling,” which allows corporations to privatize public assets such as bridges and toll roads, a practice that is most certainly not in the interests of working people.
Like the Infrastructure BIll, the Build Back Better Bill, also likely dead in the Senate, was intended to be a boon for unions. Not only was it supposed to include job-creating social infrastructure, increased taxes on the rich, paid family leave for private employees, and more robust penalties for labor violations; Democrats also promised to include many of the provisions originally outlined in the PRO Act. Few of these provisions, however, even made it through the House version, which is unlikely to ever reach the Senate, and which will certainly be even more reduced if it does. Despite this, labor has refrained from offering even mild criticism of the President’s handling of the failed negotiations over the bill.
This same almost total disregard for workers was shown by Biden’s betrayal on the minimum wage — an issue that labor unions have long agitated around. The popular demand, already a decade old, and far less than a living wage in most U.S. cities, was a pillar of his campaign; and yet just one month after his inauguration, in a conference call with state governors, Biden made it clear that including increases to the minimum wage in his first (and so far, only) coronavirus relief package was not going to happen. Since then, he has taken executive action to increase the minimum wage for federal contractors but done nothing to push for a nationwide increase to $15 or more. Indeed, the federal minimum wage remains just $7.25 an hour and has not been increased since 2009. And now, with skyrocketing levels of inflation, the real buying power of the minimum wage is worth less than ever.
A Pact with the Devil
Even though Biden betrayed or failed in every one of his promises to labor, there is one area in which he succeeded. The promises on the minimum wage, on historic labor legislation, and so on did exactly what they were supposed to do: co-opt the labor movement’s energy for the Democratic Party’s own purposes.
During Trump’s term, unions seemed poised for a new moment of struggle. In 2018, rank and file teachers in West Virginia set off a multi-state strike wave. In that state, teachers won important concessions, beating back attacks on their unions and working conditions. Driven by these events, 2018 saw a modest but important rise in the number of large strikes: 20, up from 7 the previous year; that number was 25 by 2019.
In 2020, the number of large strikes collapsed amid the pandemic. That didn’t mean, though, that unions were sitting on their hands. Teachers in particular fought to delay school openings as the pandemic raged. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, they pushed back those openings — buying time as the number of daily deaths and infections were falling — and won other concessions like better ventilation. Some of that energy carried over into Biden’s first year in the striking of miners and factory workers of “Striketober.”
Perhaps even more alarming for the ruling class, some unions began to link up with the anti-police uprising that shook the country in summer 2020. Some rank and file bus drivers refused to transport police to repress protesters; one transportation union’s leaders declared their solidarity with those actions; the ILWU held a BLM solidarity strike up and down the West Coast. In April of the following year, rank and filers and union officials in Minneapolis kicked the National Guard out of their union hall. These kinds of actions were the exception, though, not the norm. Still, they were a glimpse of the kind of power that could come from unions linking up with the massive anti-racist protests.
The union leadership, however, was fighting to contain this energy and divert it into supporting the Democrats. In other words: thanks in key part to labor’s bureaucrats, Biden has been able to accomplish what Trump could not: opening the economy at the cost of working people’s lives and health.
For example, as the pandemic raged in 2020 — during Trump’s presidency — the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, gave some support for teachers refusing to go back into the classroom. She even floated the idea that teachers had a right to “safety strikes.” Yet the leaders of the AFT refused to actually build up and coordinate those kinds of actions on the national level. When Biden came into office, Weingarten said in no uncertain terms that schools should remain open — regardless of what was happening with COVID-19. More than this, even though some unions were supporting the massive struggle against the racist police, most union heads were refusing to offer anything more than platitudes in support of Black lives. Instead, union leaders were organizing another massive “get out the vote” campaign for Biden — one of the architects of mass incarceration and a vocal supporter of the police.
In other words, union heads were short-circuiting their own members’ struggle for safety in the pandemic, and the fight against racism, with promises of a pro-union president — only for those promises to be, once again, betrayed.
For a Fighting Labor Movement
The tasks ahead for our unions under Biden are enormous. Not only are union numbers low. The ecosystem is convulsing with violent climate change. Abortion rights are on the chopping block. Cops continue to murder Black people in the street with little accountability.
Meeting these challenges means taking up the workers’ struggle in a far more militant direction: for major increases in wages; for a major decrease in hours to expand employment; for pegging pay to inflation; for PPE in all workplaces; and for the end to every law that restricts the right to unionize, strike, and stop scabs. And it means uniting these economic struggles with those against racism; for abortion rights; against imperialism.
Building a labor movement that can do these things means changing our unions into fighting organizations. First and foremost, that means severing our unions’ ties to the Democratic Party.
Those ties have radically weakened labor. Our union leaders almost all aim to keep us scrambling to elect the next Democrat — and working inside the regressive labor laws of this country. And that means mostly foregoing large strikes, as we’ve seen since the 1980s. It also means foregoing a militant fight to keep out scabs when we do strike, and refusing solidarity strikes when other workplaces walk out — all to comply with a legal system designed to rob workers of their power. It’s left unions on the sidelines waiting for politicians to do something, instead of fighting for workers’ rights, for aboriton, and against racist cops.
To cut ties with the Democrats and win real gains for our class will take nothing less than mass rank and file organizing, from the bottom up, to build the kind of force willing to buck union leadership in going on strike, building solidarity strikes, and fighting scabs. To do this, we’ll need self-organization, rather than relying on the ready-made channels of organizing set up by our pro-Democrat union leaders. In other words, building up our rank and file power will mean not just rank and file caucuses, but assemblies for workers in our union to coordinate with workers in other unions from below. Those kinds of rank-and-file organs will be key for another major task, too: coordinating the huge majority of low-wage workers who are not unionized, and who our union leaders have allowed to stay that way for far too long.
We need these kinds of spaces for self-organization to build up a united front of the working class. That is, we need places to connect to the movement for Black Lives, for Palestine, and for abortion rights: all the struggles that our labor leaders say they care about but do so little to support — independently of the parties of capitalism.