President Biden’s pro union stance is historic, but is it all talk?

President Biden is positioning himself as the most pro-union president in decades. In his joint address to Congress on Wednesday, he repeated his pitch: Responding to climate change will create union jobs, and union jobs will help rebuild the middle class. However, experts warn that he could be next in a long line of Democratic presidents who talk up unions but back down in the face of opposition.

[Biden, in speech to Congress, offers sweeping agenda and touts democracy]

A Post analysis of Biden’s statements, remarks and proposals shows that he often goes out of their way to advocate for unions, much more than other 21st century presidents.

Previous presidents’ pro-union statements often focused on the passage of a specific bill or agreement, such as Barack Obama’s support of the Employee Free Choice Act or Donald Trump’s push to pass a North American trade deal.

Biden has taken a broader view. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order that named the creation of union jobs as a top priority of the administration. Union workers are woven into his plans for infrastructure and climate change. He created a task force to investigate how the executive branch can encourage the formation of unions without approval from Congress.

“Every American deserves the dignity and respect that comes with the right to union organize and collectively bargain. The policy of our government is to encourage union organizing, and employers should ensure their workers have a free and fair choice to join a union.”

Tweet from @POTUS, February 4

He also made waves in February with a video that emphasized the rights of Amazon workers to organize during a union push in Bessemer, Ala. — an almost unprecedented display of presidential support for a high-profile union push.

[The union’s defeat at Amazon is shaking up the labor movement and exposing a rift between organizers]

Biden’s infrastructure plan refers again and again to the creation of union jobs. Unions are mentioned 24 times in the 24-page document, in initiatives ranging from replacing lead water lines to caregiving workers in home- and community-based services for the elderly and people with disabilities. He closes the plan by urging Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill intended to strengthen protections for workers’ right to organize.

“It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness, and in creating the good-paying, union jobs of the future.”

American Jobs Plan, page 1, released March 31

Biden is far from the first president to talk about job creation, or to assert that unions built the middle class. But he is unique in drawing a strong link between union jobs and the environment. Just under half of his pro-union statements cite union jobs as a key component in fighting climate change.

“There is promise in the solutions—opportunities to create well-paying union jobs to build a modern and sustainable infrastructure, deliver an equitable, clean energy future, and put the United States on a path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050”

Executive Order 14008—Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, released January 27

The share of workers represented by unions has plummeted since the 1980s, although it rose slightly in 2020, largely because nonunion workers were more likely to lose their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

But even as membership shrinks, Biden’s push coincides with an upswell in public support for unions. Confidence in unions is higher than it has been since 2004, and on par with confidence in 1984, when the share of workers represented by unions was almost twice as high as it is today.

[Labor secretary says gig workers should be classified as employees in ‘a lot of cases’]

According to Georgetown labor historian and former organizer Lane Windham, declines in union representation are due to increased employer resistance, not a lack of interest among workers.

“Employers realize and take advantage of structural weaknesses in the law,” said Windham. “They get away with it because the government has ceded the rule of referee.”

Labor organizers have taken notice of Biden’s words, but that enthusiasm has not translated to workers’ willingness to join unions.

“Organizing and joining a union is a big risk,” said labor organizer Dominic Harrison, the treasurer of UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Workers Union. “The president isn’t out there taking that risk with you. He might say it’s okay to join a union. But then when that private company or when your municipality tries to find any reason to fire you, it’s not going to make you too enthusiastic about joining the union.”

Past presidents have demonstrated that pro-union sentiments don’t necessarily translate to change.

“Every Democratic president since Carter expressed support for unions and labor reforms on the campaign trails and in the presidency, but very little materialized,” said Jon Shelton, a labor historian at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Obama endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act, which failed to pass the Senate in 2009; Bill Clinton supported a bill to prevent the replacement of striking workers, which also failed early in his presidency.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrives for a campaign event at a United Auto Workers headquarters in Michigan on Sept. 9, 2020. Patrick Semansky/AP)
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrives for a campaign event at a United Auto Workers headquarters in Michigan on Sept. 9, 2020. Patrick Semansky/AP)

Biden’s statements have particularly strong parallels with Jimmy Carter’s early days in office. Carter campaigned on his support for the 1977 Labor Reform Act, which initially contained many of the same provisions as the PRO Act that is making its way through Congress. A watered-down version of the Labor Reform Act failed in 1978, just two votes shy of the 60-vote majority needed to break a filibuster. Scholars now believe that Carter allowed the bill to fail by not pushing for the legislation’s passage at a time when Democrats held a 61-vote majority in the Senate.

The PRO Act, which passed the House in March, faces much steeper odds in the Senate, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Vice President Harris can cast a tiebreaking vote to achieve a simple majority for Democrats, but breaking a filibuster is a much steeper hurdle.

“I think Biden is going to have to eliminate the filibuster,” said Shelton. “That’s the only way to pass the PRO Act and do something meaningful on labor law reform.”

Currently, organizations that are caught retaliating against workers are required only to reinstate those workers and provide back pay. The PRO Act would make it possible for the government to fine companies that violate labor laws.

“The PRO Act is a must,” said Harrison, the North Carolina labor organizer. “I would like to see him lean as hard as he could on whichever senators are holding this up. Labor law has no teeth.”

“The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class. So that’s why I’m calling on Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act, the PRO Act, and send it to my desk so we can support the right to unionize.”

Biden’s joint address to Congress, April 28

Business-focused organizations are already rallying in opposition to the PRO Act. In March, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce notified members of the House of Representatives that their votes on the PRO Act would be included in the chamber’s How They Voted scorecard, and urging them to vote against the act.

[Biden took a chance in promoting the Amazon union push. What does its failure mean for him?]

Suzanne Clark, president and CEO-elect of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement, “The PRO Act would threaten worker privacy, force employees to pay union dues or lose their jobs, and trample free speech rights. The Chamber will fight to ensure this wish list of union-sponsored priorities fails in the Senate and never becomes law.”

The Chamber of Commerce did not reply to a request for comment on other aspects of Biden’s union-focused agenda.

A sign at the entrance to the Amazon Fulfillment Center encourages workers to vote to unionize in Bessemer, Ala. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
A sign at the entrance to the Amazon Fulfillment Center encourages workers to vote to unionize in Bessemer, Ala. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

If the PRO Act does not pass, the Biden administration can take some steps to support unions.

“The federal government is a major contractor and a major buyer of goods,” said Windham. “It can use all of that power to tell people who are supplying goods or contracting services that it expects workers will have the right to form a union.”

Still, the effects of these efforts will be limited to federal contractors and suppliers, and would be unlikely to bring workers into unions on a larger scale.

None of Biden’s labor policies, including the PRO Act, have come up for a vote in the Senate. He also has yet to face organized pushback on most of his labor positions.

“History has shown time and again that corporations resist workers organizing,” said Windham. In the 1930s, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the DuPont-backed Liberty League opposed the National Labor Relations Act; in the 1970s, the Labor Reform Act faced fierce resistance from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers.

“The real test will be how Biden reacts when he faces that wall of organized resistance from big business,” said Windham. “The pushback hasn’t begun.”

About this story

Polling data about confidence in unions is from Gallup. Data about the number of workers represented by unions is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Presidential documents (including statements, remarks, Tweets, executive orders, policy plans and fact sheets) are from The American Presidency Project.

Potential pro-union statements within those documents were discovered by conducting searches for documents from the first terms of each president, based on the the phrases “union,” “organized labor” and “collective bargaining.”

The statements were then assessed by hand. The Post only included statements where the president mentioned unions unprompted. Statements were considered pro-union if they explicitly advocated for union-related rights and policy in the U.S. and abroad, pushed for the creation of union jobs, or praised the existing labor movement, its members or its policy goals. Statements that simply mentioned the existence of organized labor and throwaway mentions of loving unions in the context of describing problems caused by unions were not included.

Each pro-union document was counted once, no matter how many pro-union statements it contained. Multiple documents about the same event or policy were counted separately. Multiple versions of the same remarks, such as remarks as prepared and remarks as delivered, were counted only once.

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