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Why Joe Biden’s pro-union message is so significant

Some labor historians think Biden’s rhetoric on unionizing is stronger than FDR’s.

A line of protesters stand outside, holding red signs reading “Vote Union Yes!”
Demonstrators hold signs during a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union protest near an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg/Getty Images

On Sunday, President Joe Biden did something not heard from a president of the United States in some time: He offered a full-throated endorsement of a worker’s right to collectively bargain.

The White House released a video statement of Biden referencing an ongoing vote in Alabama to decide whether Amazon workers at a Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse will unionize. The Bessemer workers are in the middle of a seven-week vote that began in early February and will end in late March. It’s the first time since 2014 that Amazon workers in America will decide whether or not they want representation from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“Workers in Alabama — and all across America — are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” Biden said in the video. “It’s a vitally important choice — one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers.”

Biden’s words and their timing could have a big impact.

“It’s basically unprecedented in American history,” Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies labor rights, told Vox. “Even FDR did not really intervene at the moment of a union election with a direct statement for a particular set of workers.”

Biden has promised to be a friend to labor

Biden, who received the backing of several prominent labor unions during the campaign, came into office promising to be a pro-union president. This video is a huge boost not only for the Alabama unionization efforts, but for many more workers around the country who may be considering forming a union. If the Bessemer employees unionize, it could push a wave of organizing activity at other Amazon warehouses around the country.

What Biden said about workers’ right to form a union was important. But even more important is what he said about what employers cannot do when employees are deciding whether or not to unionize. Alabama is a right-to-work state, meaning employees don’t have to pay dues in a union — which makes it harder for unions to survive.

“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” Biden said in the video. “No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences. It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers — full stop.”

Labor history expert Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California, Santa Barbara tweeted about Biden’s video, “This is new, nothing like it before. Puts Obama to shame.”

As the Washington Post and other outlets have reported, Amazon has been actively discouraging the unionization push in Bessemer, putting anti-union flyers in warehouse bathroom stalls and texting employees telling them to vote against forming the union. Amazon didn’t return Vox’s request for comment on Biden’s statement.

The next four years of Biden’s administration could be a watershed moment for organized labor in the United States. The president’s early rhetoric and actions mark a big departure from his Republican predecessor President Donald Trump and from Democratic President Barack Obama, who Biden worked alongside as vice president.

“We never met with President Obama in the Oval Office in eight years,” North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey told Vox in a recent interview, noting he and other labor leaders met with Biden within the first 30 days of his presidency. “Never has the word ‘union’ flowed off a political leader’s tongue so easily as it has with President Biden.”

Coming off a year of the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis could also give Biden an opportunity to make the case for increasing the number of unionized jobs, since unions helped protect people’s jobs during the coronavirus recession in 2020. As Vox’s Emily Stewart and Rani Molla wrote:

Even though the total number of jobs represented by a union went down by 444,000 in 2020, union jobs made up a larger share of total jobs, 12.1 percent, up half a percentage point from 2019. That’s because, thanks to union protections, people with union jobs were more likely than non-union workers to keep their jobs.

Of course, union leaders are still looking to see what concrete action Biden and his administration take on labor issues, including whether they’re able to successfully pass a pro-union bill, the PRO Act, or able to enforce existing labor laws to investigate corporations trying to discourage unionization of their workers.

Unions “go by what [presidents] do, not what they say,” McGarvey told Vox.

Why Biden’s words matter

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified that Biden was not weighing in specifically on the Amazon union vote (the president did not mention Amazon by name in the video).

“We don’t comment on specific cases where it’s before the NLRB or could be before the NLRB, so we aren’t going to weigh in specifically on Amazon. But broadly he believes workers should have the right to organize; hence, he conveyed that in the video.” Still, Biden went out of his way to mention Alabama, where it’s hard to escape the news-making unionization effort in Bessemer.

Faiz Shakir, the co-founder of progressive media outlet More Perfect Union, told Vox that he had been in contact with White House chief of staff Ron Klain ahead of Biden releasing the video, encouraging the president to come out in favor of the Bessemer unionization push.

“It means a lot that Joe Biden did this,” Shakir told Vox. “They were from the jump appreciative of the idea.”

Labor historians and activists told Vox that the substance of Biden’s speech and the timing of it, in the middle of the Bessemer vote, are extremely significant. In a series of tweets, Lichtenstein compared Biden to President Franklin Roosevelt, under whose presidency unions flourished due to Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal policies and mass mobilization during WWII.

“Biden’s attack on employer intimidation of workers seeking to join a union is something new for a president since [the 19]30s,” Lichtenstein tweeted, adding Biden’s Department of Justice and National Labor Relations Board need to follow through.

Loomis, the history professor, told Vox that there’s added significance because unions had far more political power back in the 1930s and 1940s than they currently do. In 1953, 35.7 percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions, according to a 2016 American Journal of Public Health article. By 2020, that number dropped to 6.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public-sector workers in unions are over five times that number, around 34.8 percent.

In other words, private-sector unions had more political power back in the 1940s and 1950s, meaning that both Democrat and Republican presidents had to work with them and pay lip service if they wanted to win over union voters.

Certainly, organized labor is still a sought-after bloc within Democratic politics, but its relatively low numbers in the private sector show that Biden is responding to a push from the party’s base, rather than a demand from an individual union, Loomis argued.

“By Biden making this statement, he’s responding to an overall feeling in the Democratic party for economic justice,” Loomis said. “It’s even beyond the union, it’s simply that growing demand you’re seeing in the Democratic base for a raised minimum wage.”

But Shakir, who served as campaign manager for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 bid for president, says there are a lot of innate similarities between Biden and Sanders on labor issues.

“[Biden] campaigned as a pro-union candidate, and I remember many stops along the way in which he and Bernie were often aligned as they spoke to these AFL-CIO and Teamster gatherings,” Shakir told Vox. “There’s a lot of ideological camaraderie.”