WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign began at a union hall in Pittsburgh, a city with deep ties to organized labor, and it ended nearby with an election-eve promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”
After a strained relationship with Barack Obama’s White House and a sometimes downright hostile one with President Donald Trump’s, organized labor turned out to help elect Biden and is now pinning its hopes on his administration to help fight the long decline in union membership and influence.
Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, the massive federation of unions that represent more than 14 million workers, said Biden’s resurrection of the “blue wall” in the industrial Midwest was “union made.”
“We delivered,” Trumka said. “He said he’s going to be the most pro-worker president we’ve ever seen, and I absolutely believe him.”
Union leaders like Trumka, many of whom have known Biden for decades, view him as one of their own.
“Joe’s a blue-collar guy. He comes from a blue-collar background, and he never forgot where he comes from,” Trumka said.
Biden won 56 percent of union households to Trump’s 40 percent, according to NBC News exit polls, doubling Hillary Clinton’s 8 percentage-point margin among the group four years ago.
Biden’s performance among union households, while weaker than some had expected, gives Democrats and labor leaders hope that their longstanding marriage will flourish, even as the GOP continues to make gains among working-class voters.
But now labor leaders say Democrats need to show tangible improvements in the quality of life for those voters.
At the top of labor’s wish list is the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a sweeping overhaul of labor laws that passed the Democratic-controlled House this year. But getting it to Biden’s desk for his signature will depend on Democrats’ winning Senate control in a pair of Georgia runoff elections in January, which is by no means certain.
Union leaders also see plenty of opportunity through executive actions, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, which helps explain the early jockeying among bold-faced names for the job of labor secretary, which is typically one of the lower-profile Cabinet posts.
“Joe Biden, regardless of what happens in the Senate, has the opportunity to be one of the most consequential presidents of our time because of the moment that we’re in and who he is,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Along with friendly appointments to key positions on the National Labor Relations Board and other posts, the Biden administration could reclassify some gig workers as employees instead of independent contractors, which could entitle them to benefits and overtime and allow them to unionize. Biden promised during the campaign to “ensure workers in the ‘gig economy’ and beyond receive the legal benefits and protections they deserve.”
Through executive action, his administration could raise the salary threshold to qualify as management, which would make overtime rules apply to more workers. And it could more aggressively enforce existing wage and hour rules and health and safety protections, such as requiring employers to provide more personal protective equipment.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, among others, have drawn public or private backing from various union leaders to head the Labor Department.
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said that Sanders asked her for her support for the post and that she was happy to give it.
“He doesn’t just understand labor and advocate for working people. He grounds his life in the labor ideals of solidarity, equity and leaving no one behind,” Nelson said. “Bernie understands that you can’t have a strong democracy or a thriving economy without a strong labor movement and power for working people to get a fair share of the value our labor creates.”
Trumka is said to support Walsh, but he declined to say whom he’s urging Biden to choose.
Trump’s Labor Department, led by Eugene Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who is a former management-side lawyer at a white-shoe law firm, has been largely missing in action during the Covid-19 pandemic, critics say.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received more than 10,000 allegations of unsafe working conditions related to the virus, but it has issued few citations. And those amounted to “barely a slap on the wrist,” the agency’s former administrator told The New Yorker.
Weingarten said Biden believes unionization is a critical pathway to the middle class and important to rebalance an economic system that has tipped too much toward big corporations.
“You’re talking about 40 years of eroding that collective sense of economic power,” she said. “I think we’ll see a resurgence in union organizing.”
Weingarten is said to be under consideration for education secretary, along with other teachers union leaders (she declined to comment), which would be a reversal from not just the Trump administration, but also the Obama administration.
Trump installed Betsy DeVos, an heiress and education reform activist, and Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan oversaw an expansion of charter schools and measures to hold teachers accountable for students’ standardized test scores, which the unions had opposed.
At one point, the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, which typically keeps a low profile in national politics, voted to call for Duncan’s resignation.
Organized labor’s relationship with the Obama White House soured after Democrats failed to pass a bill that would have made it easier to unionize and in light of international trade deals that the administration pushed despite opposition from labor.
“He surrounded himself with a whole cadre of Wall Street elites. They sort of didn’t understand working people,” Trumka said of Obama in 2019, adding that Obama’s aggressive push for a giant Asian trade deal “probably cost [Democrats] the election in 2016.”
Biden was Obama’s vice president and an advocate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but labor leaders have mostly let him off the hook for that, understanding that he had to follow the president’s agenda and giving him the benefit of the doubt after a decadeslong close relationship with Biden when be was in the Senate.
Biden has said his top priority once he takes office will be the coronavirus, which has hit union workers across the economy, from nurses to service-sector employees to the airline industry, which recently laid off tens of thousands of workers after government support ran out.
“We are in an emergency situation,” said Nelson, who said she hopes Biden will use the crisis to galvanize support for tackling the larger underlying inequities the pandemic has exposed. “This administration has this opportunity of the shared experience we’re all going through to get people to really understand the very serious problems that we have to tackle as a country.”
But she said it will take activists and unions pushing the new president.
“There is no shortage of wonderful rhetoric coming from Joe Biden’s mouth on all of these issues, and I appreciate all of that, but I also realize that this is not going to come just from Joe Biden. It’s going to come from a groundswell of union organizing and activity,” Nelson said.
During the Democratic primary season, when other candidates packed the stands of party events with cheering supporters, a few firefighters in yellow union T-shirts were sometimes just about the only fans there for Biden. They hope that will be remembered.
“In Iowa and New Hampshire, when it was dim and there was some despair and a lot of people were beginning to maybe write the campaign off, we did what we always do,” said Harold Schaitberger, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “We stuck it out with him.”
CORRECTION (Nov. 15, 2020, 6:38 p.m. ET): A previous version of the article misstated the date of passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. It passed the House this year, not last year.