President Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday to lead a White House task force aimed at the unprecedented goal of unionizing more workers in the U.S. with the broad support of the federal government.
Mr. Biden signed an executive order creating the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment to mobilize Cabinet agencies and other federal offices to help workers “organize and successfully bargain with their employers,” the White House said.
National Right to Work Committee President Mark Mix called Mr. Biden’s task force “a blatant payoff to the union politicos who backed his campaign” in 2020.
The panel, whose vice chairman will be Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, will have 180 days to meet with labor unions and others to develop policy proposals to encourage more worker organization.
The White House cited a “steady decline” in union membership in the U.S., from more than 30% of the workforce in the 1950s to 10.8% in 2020.
“This decline has had a host of negative consequences for American workers and the economy, including weakening and shrinking America’s middle class,” Mr. Biden said in the order. “Meanwhile, some workers have been excluded from opportunities to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers by law or practice, and so have never been able to build meaningful economic power or have a voice in their workplaces.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the move as a “historic effort” to mobilize Washington to help unionize workers. She said the task force will have a “specific focus on increasing worker power and marginalized and underserved communities.”
It was another sign of organized labor’s grip on the Democratic Party and its influence with Mr. Biden. Unions gave more than $27 million to Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign and groups that supported him, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The initiative was announced less than a month after online retail giant Amazon defeated a move to unionize workers at its huge warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. It also follows a series of pro-union steps that Mr. Biden has taken, including a shake-up of the leadership at the National Labor Relations Board and an endorsement of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, broad legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a close Biden ally, said the president “is acting to remove the structural impediments to the power and promise of unions so workers can join together for a better life.”
“Workers finally have a champion in Washington,” she said.
Conservatives and pro-growth groups slammed the executive order as an effort to put Mr. Biden’s thumb on the scale of the labor market.
Sean Higgins, a research fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, said Mr. Biden “seems to believe joining a union is an obligation that the federal government must prod workers to do.”
“This executive order is a harbinger of further aggressive sales tactics from this administration on behalf of its union allies,” Mr. Higgins said.
Mr. Mix said the move will result in “another attempt to rig the law against workers who want nothing to do with union officials’ so-called representation.”
“This is yet another move by the Biden White House to give the president’s Big Labor political allies more power at the expense of the rights of rank-and-file workers who overwhelmingly have chosen not to affiliate or associate with a labor union,” Mr. Mix said.
Joe Kildea, a spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth, called the move “another page in Biden’s growing handbook on how to lose jobs in 100 days.”
Mr. Biden was criticized for canceling construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline on his first day in office, with the expected loss of thousands of union jobs.
But White House aides say Mr. Biden is on track to preside over the creation of 1 million jobs in his first 100 days, a record pace aided by the easing of the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020.
The president tweeted, “The truth is I’m a union president, and I make no bones about that. I’m committed to strengthening our unions and rebuilding the backbone of this country — the middle class.”
Since the creation of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, it has been the federal government’s policy “to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining, not to merely allow or tolerate them,” the White House said.
“In the 86 years since the act was passed, the federal government has never fully implemented this policy,” the White House said. “While some administrations have taken selected actions to strengthen workers’ rights, no previous administration has taken a comprehensive approach to determining how the executive branch can advance worker organizing and collective bargaining.”
Mr. Higgins said that is a misinterpretation of the New Deal-era law.
“The National Labor Relations Act was only meant to encourage collective bargaining when that serves the purpose of ending ‘substantial’ disruptions in industries, like worker strikes, that could harm the national economy,” he said, and not a government mandate to encourage collective bargaining where there are no disruptions. In those situations, the NLRA says, belonging to a union is solely the workers’ choice.
Union leaders have told Senate Democrats that they won’t support lawmakers who don’t back the PRO Act, House-passed legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize. It would extend collective bargaining rights to independent contractors and eliminate right-to-work laws in 27 states.
The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, which includes business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Association, has called the bill “anti-worker legislation that invades employees’ privacy.”
“The drastic restructuring of the nation’s labor laws and resulting economic upheaval would cost millions of American jobs, threaten vital supply chains, and greatly diminish opportunities for entrepreneurs and struggling small businesses,” said Kristen Swearingen, chair of the coalition.
United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway said the president’s order will help “reset the scales” in labor-employer relations.
“For too long, corporations have leveraged their political influence to increase their profits and erode workers’ rights, resulting in stagnant wages and rampant economic inequality,” he said.
The 700,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union in the federal government, said Mr. Biden is “continuing to deliver on his campaign promise to be the most pro-union, pro-worker president ever.”
AFGE National President Everett Kelley said the move would fight “artificial legal barriers and rampant union-busting.”
“President Biden has promised to make the federal government a ‘model’ unionized employer, one that shows by example that employers should encourage union organizing, and neither interfere with nor undermine their workers’ organizing and bargaining efforts,” Mr. Kelley said. “The administration’s new task force is a natural extension of that earlier policy and further proof that this administration is walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”