American labour woes: Why more power to workers might not work for Biden

  • 23 Jun 2022

President Joe Biden is betting on strengthening his image as a protector of the working class by trying to win over unions in the run-up to the mid-term congressional elections. But the “union” tactic could also upset the president’s well-laid plans.

( AP )

Strengthening ties with American labour unions has become one of the lifelines for the Democratic Party ahead of crucial mid-term elections scheduled for November, the course of which could have unpleasant consequences for the White House given the inflation and energy market crisis. 

President Joe Biden's speech at the American Federation of Labor (AFL)-Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) convention in Philadelphia pointed unequivocally to his willingness to play this card.

"Wall Street didn't build this country. This country was built by the middle class. And unions built the middle class," the head of state said emphatically. Attending this quadrennial event is almost mandatory for all presidents representing the Democratic Party, but Biden's speech could not be called routine: the White House chief has made  special efforts in recent months to gain the attention of the labour movement.

"When was the last time you saw a president open the doors of the White House to welcome workers? Especially workers, who are part of a growing movement in industries that historically have not been organised, and who are capturing the public mind right now as far as unionism is concerned," argues April Verrett, chair of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

For his part, political consultant of Democratic Party, Faiz Shakir, observes that on the part of the current administration, betting on workers is a perfectly sound economic move. "It's also the right political ‘medicine’ for the White House at the moment," he stresses. According to Shakir, these policies create a favourable contrast to those of the Republican Party.

An Advocate of the Middle Class

Biden has had a reputation as the most "pro-union president" in Washington before. For example, his team dismissed officials who had serious problems with all sorts of unions in defence of workers' rights and backtracked on executive orders from former President Donald Trump's administration that weakened protections for wage workers. In addition, an entire White House labour panel was formed to reverse the current trend of declining union membership.

According to official figures introduced earlier this year, only 10.3 percent  of American workers were represented by unions in 2021. By comparison, that number was as high as 10.8 percent  in 2020. The situation is commonly compared to the middle of the last century when about 30 percent  of the US workforce had adequate representation. Now the weakest interest in the protection of the rights through such structures is fixed in the private sector where only 6.1 percent of people had membership in labour movements in 2021.

Biden’s attempt to get closer to ordinary American workers is welcomed by the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the most radical group of influence which the president's reputation can largely depend on. Since the first months after his inauguration, the head of state has tried to take its views into account so as not to create unnecessary controversy among his fellow party members.

Maybe this is why his support of the unions has been demonstrative on several occasions. For example, the US president has publicly supported Amazon's sorting centre employees who have expressed a desire to form their own unions. He also guarded the interests of workers at the multinational giant Kellogg whose employees were on the verge of losing their jobs due to prolonged strikes.

And earlier this week, Biden said he was “proud” of Apple’s retail workers in Towson, Maryland, who voted this weekend to form the first-ever labour union at one of the tech giant’s stores. 

The Republican Party has traditionally shown scepticism about the role and importance of the labour movement, though it should be noted that it had some success with white working-class voters in the Trump era. There is speculation that Biden's course to strengthen relations with the labour movement is one attempt to halt this trend.

The price of rapprochement

However, the president's show of support for labour unions might yield more than just political dividends. It contains a whole complex of risks.

Partly, experts connect this line with the prospect of an increasing confrontation between the executive branch and big US corporations, which have already expressed their concern to the US president about the signs of growing self-organisation of their own workers. Moreover, the American electorate is not so united on the need to support labour unions.

"Unions in the US are quite bureaucratic and even corrupt. They are built to work as vote providers for the Democrats, but these structures do not really encourage the organisation of workers," notes sociologist and publicist Boris Kagarlitsky. According to him, relations with such organisations do not indicate the quality of interaction with the working class.

In addition, there are concerns that Biden's desire to present himself as the unrivalled and unwavering advocate of labour unions may limit his manoeuvrability  in dealing with the effects of inflation. It was the leading US unions that put pressure  on the Biden administration to give new life to tariff restrictions on Chinese products. "Our government must act for public interests to strengthen our economy for the future," the relevant motion said.

So, the doubled focus on the working class could come at a serious cost to the president. And so far, the movement itself is not inclined to make big advances to the Democratic Party. 

As Liz Schuler, a leading labour activist pointed out, “You can't just turn to members of the movement and start telling them about the congressional candidates. For now, it's just a matter of rebuilding trust with the government,” she stressed.