Biden has a short temper
This post is part of our series of articles "On the Edge of the Abyss: A Progressive Agenda for the Biden Era".
While the COVID-19 pandemic has still not been contained, the working class continues to face bad cards: a stalled economy with rapidly increasing inequality; bad labor law and even worse business-friendly courts enforcing it against workers; a trade policy that gives corporations too many rights; the uncontrolled climate crisis and, in addition, complacency in too many parts of the unions. The new Biden administration aims to be the most worker-friendly US administration ever. But without organized public pressure, it will quickly limit itself to solving the problems created under Trump without developing a plan that could reverse the structural losses of the last 40 years. A piecemeal approach to reform will not lead to the change workers need. A better future for unions and workers is possible, but only if we demand it.
On the state of affairs
In August 2020, the board of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), which includes elected union members and federal UE officials, issued a statement stating that “the working class will not have another four years Trump can afford, "and that the only way" to remove Trump from office ... is to elect Joe Biden ".
Not to blindly support Biden, but because they were aware of the importance of the measures taken by the Trump administration, they wrote: "President Trump has attacked workers' rights much more aggressively than any of his predecessors, weakened regulatory mechanisms and the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board and the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] staffed with corporate agents. His appointments to the Supreme Court led to rulings against workers, including the “Janus” ruling, which weakens unions in the public sector; and his constant efforts to fill the federal courts with judges hostile to workers leads to fears of further such judgments. "
On November 3, 2020, Biden was elected president in a record-breaking election. According to post-election polls, more working-class voters voted and voted for Democrats than in the 2016 presidential election, while wealthy households remained more likely to vote for Trump. In 2020, 57% of people in union households, that is, households where at least one union member lives, voted for Biden and 40% for Trump. That's a significant shift from 2016, when Trump lost the union budget vote by just eight percentage points.
This is a good result for the labor movement. It enables unions to make robust demands to make their voices heard in the Biden government, both in terms of organizing and improving the economic situation.
Unfortunately, union leaders have so far focused more on who will run the Department of Labor rather than thinking about who will What that person should do and how it could be combined with other economic policy measures. That it took Biden so long to nominate his longtime friend Marty Walsh for the post is questionable and suggests that Biden himself has no clear idea of what this person is supposed to achieve.
Ultimately, the unions must give priority to a program-oriented approach so that power can be gained through the enforcement of the economic interests of workers. The dramatic unemployment figures at the beginning of the pandemic have now fallen somewhat, but the Economic Policy Institute points out that more than 25.5 million workers in the US have lost their jobs or are forced to work short-time. Of course, these job losses hit those who previously had the least resources the hardest. Wealth inequality has increased while Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, the Walton family, and others got incredibly rich. The emergency aid that Congress passed at the end of 2020 is far from being enough as a cushion against COVID-19 and the economic suffering it has caused.
What the working class needs
Before we adapt our objectives to what is politically feasible, we must be clear about the needs of the working class. Correcting developments in the economy is a top priority. Every new economic stimulus package must make funds available to the ministries and municipalities so that mass layoffs and budget cuts can be prevented. In addition, we need a comprehensive job security program that is tailored to people's needs and is aware of the dangers of climate change and potential new health crises - a “Green New Deal”. Massive investments in infrastructure, healthcare and education are required. The investments should be linked to conditions: that the jobs created are of high quality, that the workers employed there can organize themselves and that the job offers are tailored to communities and sections of the population that suffer most from deindustrialization, the climate crisis and systematic racism.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes it clear that a U.S. government needs to do more to ensure health care for everyone, regardless of employment. To renovate our ailing health system in the long term requires a kind of Medicare for All, that is, a public health insurance for everyone in the country - a concept that the UE has supported since the 1940s.
Workers need a suitable legal basis in order to be able to organize themselves better in a union. This is vital to us. A recent study found that nursing homes in New York where staff were unionized had 42% fewer COVID-19 infections and 30% fewer deaths than nursing homes that didn't. All over the country, workers * fought for personal protective equipment and appropriate safety measures together. This took place not only within the framework of the UE and other unions, but also at workplaces where the employees are not unionized. Congress needs to pass major labor law reforms such as the Workplace Democracy Act and PRO Act so that workers can exercise their full rights to organize, bargain and strike.
What to expect
It is likely that the Biden administration will make some improvements for workers, especially in areas related to pandemic control. In advance, guidelines for the "Standard for Infectious Diseases" of the Authority for Safety and Health at Work (OSHA) should be drawn up. They would require health care facilities and most other workplaces to follow infectious disease control protocols. The unions assume that decisions by the National Labor Relations Board that are unfavorable for workers will be reversed and vacancies for investigators at OSHA will be refilled.
Such measures are helpful, but are limited to sideline scenes without adequately addressing the main problems in federal labor law, which puts the interests of employers above those of employees. In addition, such measures are out of date in view of the labor market situation. If only bad decisions are reversed, unions benefit, especially as less than 10% of US workers are currently unionized. Not much is to be expected from Secretary of Labor Walsh in this regard.
In addition, Republican Senator Mich McConnell has succeeded in filling federal courts with business-friendly judges. This will have long-term implications for workers 'rights, regardless of the Democrats' control over the Senate. Unions will face the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling that allows public sector workers to refuse to pay union dues despite benefiting from union-negotiated contracts. Unions must be prepared for the Supreme Court to extend this ruling to the private sector.
Employees cannot rely on the courts to protect their rights. This is illustrated by numerous decisions: from the Dred Scott judgment in 1857 to the judgments that the new Chief Justice Amy Coney Barrett passed in her previous work as appellate judge. She perpetuated racial discrimination in the workplace. The judiciary always prioritizes the protection of institutions that maintain the status quo and only grants new rights if the general public demands it.
In addition, activists need to acquire quick mobilization skills in order to prevent new corporate-friendly trade deals. Biden was an architect on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that ultimately failed to materialize. He may try to revive it. On the other hand, his election of Katherine Tai as US Trade Representative-designate is positive. Tai led the negotiations on NAFTA 2.0 for the Democratic majority in Congress. In doing so, she helped strengthen the provisions of the new agreement, which are designed to guarantee that Mexican workers can form independent trade unions and negotiate better wages and benefits. Improving wages and working conditions for workers in other countries is the best way to prevent US companies from relocating their production abroad, thus encouraging investment in domestic production.
Tai's nomination shows that the old "free trade model" embodied by NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and the proposed TPP and championed for decades by Republicans and the right wing Democrats is no longer tenable. However, it remains to be seen to what extent Tai and the Biden administration will advocate policies that improve the wages and working conditions of workers, especially those involved in production, in all countries. This is the only political strategy that could really protect our jobs from globalization. Workers must remain vigilant and ready to keep up public pressure.
So far, Biden's selection for his cabinet and his advisors shows a clear preference for centrists close to large corporations and employees of the former Obama administration. Three of those he has chosen are employed by the investment company BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager and deregulator. His Secretary of Defense sits on the board of Raytheon, one of the world's largest arms manufacturers. So the working class must be wary of warmongering.
A surprising, positive antithesis to the centrists is Deb Haaland, Biden's election for the post of Home Secretary. The mere appointment of an indigenous woman to head the ministry to which the Bureau of Indian Affairs reports has a significant impact. Haaland also comes from the working class and was a courageous activist both before and during her tenure as a congresswoman.
So far, centrist Democrats, including Biden, have been unwilling to even consider the Green New Deal. However, the labor movement should take every opportunity to implement proposals contained in the Green New Deal, even if this can only be done gradually. However, we must be aware that this approach alone will not lead to complete ecological or economic justice.
After the runoff for one of Georgia’s two Senate seats, which confirmed a Democratic majority in the Senate, the Biden administration now has a short two-year window for major projects.
How we achieve our goals
The drastic economic downturn triggered by the pandemic gives the working class leeway, which we can only use if we can agree on a plan that takes into account the interests of employees rather than those of corporations in the long term. We can only assert ourselves with outwardly visible actions that disrupt business as usual, and that in the truest sense of the word.
There is good reason to believe that large sections of the population can be mobilized to put pressure on Biden and Congress, especially if the unions take the lead and create a broad alliance that includes Black Lives Matter and environmental activists. The Democrats were not particularly popular in the last election, but that is not the case with worker-friendly policies.
In Florida, where Trump did significantly better in 2020 than in 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative to introduce a minimum hourly wage of US $ 15. The Campaign for Health Insurance for All, the Labor Campaign for Single Payer, wrote in an email to its supporters: “Although the Democrats lost seats in Congress, not a single candidate under the Medicare for All Act suffered supported, a defeat. ... Even in constituencies with swing voters, supporters of Medicare for All ... were re-elected, while opponents in such constituencies suffered defeat. "
The unions should think about what they can do with the new opportunities creatively. We inherit a federal administrative system that has shrunk due to underfunding and privatization. We can restore trust in our institutions if we create jobs and make communities resilient again. We should start where we can find an open ear. For example, with Haaland as Minister of the Interior, we should consider what kind of programs for green jobs we can develop so that our natural resources are not plundered but are preserved. Perhaps she will start a new civil conservation corps that will replace lead water pipes and remove coal ash. Many people could earn a living with it.
Yet another possibility: Biden's election of Xavier Becerra to the post of Minister of Health is strange given his lack of experience in public health. He has supported Medicare for All in the past, but then followed Biden's request not to advance this plan. On the other hand, Becerra's partner, Carolina Reyes, made a name for herself with obstetrics and perinatal medicine in underserved communities. Maybe it has a positive influence. With the US failing to get the pandemic under control, unions should demand massive investment in the existing but underfunded National Health Service Corps, which reports to the Department of Health. We should pay thousands of workers collective wages, train them in testing and vaccination protocols, and then finance higher education in health for them.
We shouldn't be afraid to come up with unusual proposals where we have fewer allies. For example, the members of the UE 506 branch in Erie, Pennsylvania make locomotive engines. They receive solid wages and benefits that have been unionized over the years. UE members would like to be pioneers in producing electric and clean energy locomotives for a US high-speed rail network. It is unclear whether Transport Minister Pete Buttigieg has enough foresight to adopt this plan, which is both economically and ecologically positive. But that shouldn't stop us from advocating this ambitious idea.
We workers have to make our struggles visible on the streets. It is important to use tactics such as large-scale demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience, including occupations. Only in this way can we force capitalist structures to give in to our demands. Those in the labor movement who still know how to carry out such actions should pass their knowledge on to the new generation of activists.In light of recent events, such actions must be carefully organized so that they really target the interests of capital and not end up as a mere theatrical performance on Capitol Hill.
When the labor movement really focuses on issues that directly affect working people and their families, it can overcome old divisions that only grew stronger during the Trump administration. Biden clearly won the election, but Trump received many millions of working class votes. As UE officials stated in a statement following the violent occupation of the Capitol on January 6, 2021: “The increase in right-wing extremist and white supremacy groups is not only a threat to our democracy and to the life and safety of the People of Color but also blocks the path to the unity of the working class that we need to achieve economic justice and a decent standard of living. ”Neither the election results nor the recent turmoil mean that Biden or the unions should curry favor with the Republicans. What is needed is a resolute program that unites people around our common interests as workers.
Kari Thompson is Director of International Strategies and Co-Director of Education at UE. Before joining the UE team, she was unionized with UE in Iowa.
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