by Jonah Furman, Labor Notes
President Joe Biden is eager to be the most pro-union president in American history.
“You know, you’ve heard me say many time,” Biden has said. “I intend to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”
Here’s one important way that the President can show up for labor: by getting involved in labor strikes on the side of workers. In recent history, presidents have refused to speak out in favor of workers who are engaged in an ongoing labor dispute.
President Barack Obama’s Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters, “Well, the President, as I think you just heard from me, has not expressed any opinion or made any assessment of this particular incident.”
The Biden White House has continued this modern practice of abstention.
“Well, as a policy, and for legal reasons, we don’t weigh in on individual labor disputes, so let me say that first,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said recently.
And in response to questions about the John Deere strike, Biden told reporters last week, “I’m not getting into the negotiation, but if you think that’s what you need then you should do it.”
To be fair, workers should be leading the way in letting the company know what they need for a fair deal. When negotiations break down, however, and workers are out on the picket line against corporate greed, it’s in the public interest for the administration to ensure a work stoppage is addressed in a way that respects working people.
If Biden wants to become the most pro-union president in American history, he needs to change the norms and retain the option to get involved if he so chooses—especially when workers are on a prolonged strike.
Coal miners at Alabama’s Warrior Met Coal and nurses at Massachusetts’ St. Vincent Hospital have been on strike for hundreds of days. Going on strike for that long is an enormous sacrifice by workers. And the longer a labor dispute drags out, the more it favors deep-pocketed corporations. As workers go without paychecks, corporations can hire scabs to replace striking workers, shift jobs to other factories, or close down entirely. But, the Biden administration has yet to express public support for the striking Warrior Met or St. Vincent workers. With each passing day, it gets harder and harder for the striking workers to extract a fair deal. Even a statement from the labor Secretary would mean a great deal.
Franklin Roosevelt is widely considered to be the most pro-union president in American history. If Biden wants to claim the mantle, FDR provides a good model to emulate. FDR and his Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins, got personally involved in the sit-down strikes of 1937 by encouraging the president of General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers union.
In one particular historic exchange, Secretary Perkins chided the chairman of General Motors for reneging on a promise to meet with striking workers. “You are a scoundrel and a skunk,” she said to him. “You can’t talk to me like that!” the chairman of GM responded. “I’m worth 70 million dollars!” With Roosevelt’s backing, the workers won and unlocked important gains that led to the growth of America’s middle class.
And FDR’s was not the only administration to have intervened in a labor dispute on behalf of working people. In 1962, JFK got involved in the negotiations between the Steelworkers and U.S. Steel, urging the company to raise wages for workers without increasing prices for consumers. He called the leaders of the union and the company to the Oval Office to broker a deal. When the company reneged on what they negotiated, he came down hard.
Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan have used the power of the government to get involved in labor disputes—on behalf of corporate power, not workers. Too often, Democratic presidents have taken a stance of neutrality. But, President Biden has the opportunity to level the playing field.
The Biden administration should threaten to get involved to sort out labor disputes that it finds particularly reprehensible. It’s in the national interest to show everyone involved that our government will act as a counterweight to egregious corporate power in labor conflicts. After 40 years of the right-wing’s war on workers, the Biden administration can reestablish justice for working people—and become the most pro-union administration in U.S. history.