Rick Haglund: Can Biden help reignite the labor movement?

March 27, 2021 6:51 am

Now-President Joe Biden in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Ken Coleman

President Joe Biden has promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” And Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber couldn’t be happier.

Bieber said he was stunned by a remarkable White House YouTube video in which Biden, without naming the company, strongly warned giant online retailer Amazon not to interfere with a union organizing drive at a company fulfillment center in Alabama.

“It was such a tough tone. I’ve never seen a president make statements like that,” Bieber told me. “That video was amazing. It gave a big lift to the souls of working people all over the country.”

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is attempting to organize 5,800 Amazon workers at its Alabama facility. If the effort succeeds, it would be the first Amazon operation to be represented by a union. Voting ends Monday.

Some experts say a union victory there could spark efforts to organize some 800,000 Amazon workers nationwide. Amazon has added more than 13,500 employees in Michigan since 2010 and is growing rapidly.

But the Alabama organizing drive has implications far beyond Amazon. It comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has turned low-wage employees in places like Amazon, restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes into heroic, essential workers.

Growing income inequality, and the rising power of corporate behemoths like Amazon, Google, Facebook and other tech giants are fueling discontent among the working class.

“Workers are hurting now,” Bieber said. “There’s frustration with working conditions and low wages that the labor movement was born to address.”

While Amazon boasts that it supports a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour and already pays it to its workers, the company faces growing complaints of widespread brutal, unsafe working conditions. The company denies those claims.

Amazon earned a record $21.3 billion during a pandemic-ravaged 2020, more than three times General Motors Co.’s profit of $6.2 billion last year.

GM’s 44,000 eligible hourly workers represented by the United Auto Workers Union shared handsomely in the automaker’s profit. Each received a check of up to $9,000. Amazon’s workers earned far less.

The UAW also has been instrumental in keeping new auto manufacturing investment and jobs in the United States. Most of the more than $14 billion in plant spending announced by Detroit Three automakers since 2017 is a result of UAW bargaining with those companies.

(Yes, the UAW also was bloodied by a years-long corruption scandal that included top union officials accepting bribes from auto executives.)

Can Biden reinvigorate a labor movement that’s been hammered by the offshoring of good-paying manufacturing jobs, weakened labor laws that have given employers an overwhelming advantage in defeating union organizing drives and a growing “gig economy” in which millions of workers are don’t have benefits and protections afforded employees?

Nearly 1.1 million Michigan workers, or 27.8% of all workers were represented by unions in 1989. Today the number of union-represented workers has fallen to 661,000, or 16.1%.

Regardless of what you think of labor unions, many economists cite their decline as a major reason for wage stagnation and income inequality over the past few decades.

One piece of Biden’s union revival agenda is the PRO Act, a transformative piece of legislation that would prohibit mandatory company meetings to dissuade workers from joining a union, prevent employers from interfering in union elections and provide other worker protections.

The U.S. House passed the bill earlier this month with five Republicans joining Democrats. But the legislation is seen as having little chance in the Senate.

Days after taking office, Biden signed an executive order restoring collective bargaining rights to federal employees. He fired the former guy’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board.

And he named Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as Labor secretary. Walsh, who once headed a Laborers Union local, is the first former labor leader to head the Labor Department in nearly 50 years.

“I have long said that America wasn’t built by Wall Street,” Biden said in the White House video. “It was built by the middle class. And unions built the middle class.”

Marick Masters is a Wayne State University business professor and former director of the university’s labor programs. He said Biden has so many big issues to deal with — COVID, economic recovery, voting rights, infrastructure, border security, deteriorating relations with China and North Korea — that his labor agenda could get short-changed.

“There’s a lot of merit in [the PRO Act],” he said. “We need to revisit labor laws written 80 years ago,” he said.

But union-averse employers also are likely to find ways to subvert organizing drives even if Biden manages to outlaw some of their current tactics, he said.

“Most employers are nonunion and want to remain so,” Masters said. “Companies have more money than unions do to fight organizing drives and they are more than willing to spend it.”

But even if the vote to organize Amazon workers at the Alabama facility fails, Bieber said he thinks the union movement will have a brighter future under Biden, who could be organized labor’s best friend in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt. 

“The solidarity among labor unions is stronger than it’s ever been,” he said.

They’ll need every bit of that strength to reverse decades of anti-unionism in this country.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.